Coal plant emissions debated

LACEY - The operating permit for the Centralia coal-burning power plant should be rewritten to better protect human health and air quality, an attorney for a coalition of conservation groups argued before the state Pollution Control Hearings Board.

Earthjustice attorney Janette Brimmer said the permit issued by the Southwest Clean Air Agency in September 2009 requires no controls for greenhouse gases and mercury and no additional controls for nitrogen oxide, the source of haze that limits visibility in national parks and wilderness areas.

The 40-year-old coal plant, owned and operated by the Calgary-based TransAlta Corp., is the single largest source of air pollution in the state, including about 10 percent of the state’s carbon dioxide emissions, a key climate-warming gas.

The Centralia plant also provides and supports hundreds of jobs and produces electricity equal to 10 percent of the state’s use.

“This permit leads to self-regulation by TransAlta,” Brimmer said in asking the hearings board to send the permit, which is good for five years, back to the air agency for additional work.

The plant also is the target of a campaign by the Sierra Club to make Washington the first coal-free state.

Attorneys for TransAlta and the air agency countered that the air-operating permit is not the right vehicle for setting new emission limits at the plant.

“It’s a very unrealistic assessment of how the air-operating permit works,” said Seattle attorney Svend Barndt-Erichsen, who represented the clean-air agency before the three-member hearings board.

Ongoing efforts by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to ratchet down mercury emissions – along with pending and negotiated settlements between TransAlta and the Department of Ecology over plant emissions – will be more productive than putting more demands on the air agency, said Richard Griffith, a Denver-based attorney representing TransAlta.

TransAlta is in closed-door talks with Ecology over a proposal to cut carbon dioxide emissions from the plant by 50 percent by 2025.

The parties have met several times, but there’s no progress report ready for the public, TransAlta spokesman Gary MacPherson said after the three-hour session with the hearings board.

“We feel this should be an open, public process,” the Sierra Club’s Ethan Bergerson said of the greenhouse-gas talks.

In addition, Ecology is putting the finishing touches on an air-pollution-reduction plan at the coal plant that calls on TransAlta to voluntarily reduce mercury emissions by 50 percent by 2012. Failure to meet the goal could lead to an Ecology order requiring the reductions.

TransAlta also installed equipment last year to cut nitrogen oxide emissions by 20 percent.

Bill Lynch, a hearings board member, asked Brimmer why the air agency should set its own standards, in light of all the other activities to curb pollution from the power plant.

EPA has been working on mercury rules for years without result, Brimmer said. There’s no guarantee that new rules are imminent. And, she said, there’s technology on the market that can cut mercury emissions from a power plant by more than 90 percent.

She said the greenhouse-gas reductions could happen much sooner than in 2025 with a more aggressive operating permit.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444