Sen. Phil Rockefeller has a bill to phase out coal power in the state by 2020, a compromise between a House bill that sets the deadline at 2015 and an executive order that puts it at 2025, and, like most compromises, it’s making people on both sides of the debate unhappy.
Environmental groups and healthcare workers said coal-fired electricity is too harmful to go on and representatives from TransAlta, Washington only coal-burning power plant, said switching to cleaner sources by 2020 would devastate the economy at a hearing on Senate Bill 5769 this morning.
The bill would extend state emissions requirements to TransAlta on Dec. 31, 2020, set up a decommissioning fund that the plant would have to pay into and create another fund to encourage future economic development in the Centralia area that would be funded by repealing existing sales tax breaks for coal.
According to Karina Shagren, a spokeswoman for the governor, there is an executive order in place to phase out coal by 2025, but it does not have the same force as law. Under the order, the Ecology Department has to negotiate with TransAlta to try to secure a 2025 phase-out, but so far, no agreement has been reached.
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Shagren said the governor was pleased that the Legislature was taking up the issue.
Workers at TransAlta and residents of Lewis County, though, pointed out that the plant provides about 300 well-paying jobs in an area plagued by unemployment.
“My concern today is, with the premature closure of the TransAlta Plant, what opportunities does that give our young people in the future?” said Daniel Fugate, a TransAlta worker. “An early closure would not give our young people the same opportunities that I had.”
TransAlta USA president, Lou Florence, said the plant pays an average salary of about $88,000 per year. According to the Office of Financial Management, the median household income in Lewis County is about $42,000 per year.
Environmental advocates have made the coal phase-out one of their four main legislative priorities this session, however. TransAlta is the biggest single source of greenhouse gases in the state, and, according to a recent report, it emits close to 400 pounds of mercury per year.
Health professionals also supported the bill, though they pushed for a 2015 deadline.
“Combustion of coal poisons the air and water and puts all of our health at risk,” said Joelle Puccio, a registered nurse. She said coal burning was linked to asthma and lung damage, especially among children.
House Bill 1825, which would set the coal phase-out deadline in 2015, is scheduled for a hearing in the House Environment Committee Tuesday. That same day environmental groups and TransAlta representatives are planning rallies on the Capitol campus.