A bill has been introduced in the state Legislature to force the TransAlta coalburning power plant near Centralia to convert to cleaner energy by Dec. 31, 2015.
Environmentalists have made passage of Rep. Marko Liias’ legislation — House Bill 1825 — a top priority for the session.
Liias’ bill is in direct conflict with an executive order issued by Gov. Chris Gregoire in November 2009 directing TransAlta to make the transition by 2025.
Moving the deadline up 10 years, and giving TransAlta less than four years to make the conversion, has panicked power company officials, employees and the greater Centralia/Chehalis community that rely on family wage paychecks from TransAlta workers to ring their cash registers.
This debate has escalated over the last year when the state chapter of the Sierra Club called for the closure of the power plant. Environmentalists continue their attempts to get TransAlta’s operating permit revoked.
We understand their concerns. We also understand TransAlta’s efforts to self-regulate and move to a cleaner plant on a more relaxed schedule. The question is the timeline – a rushed 2015 deadline or the governor’s 2025 deadline. Which is appropriate?
We believe it’s time Gregoire called all the parties together and instructed them to work out their differences and come to an agreement. TransAlta must be at the table, but so should the environmental community, the state Department of Ecology, clean air regulators and legislators. All must be willing to compromise, then set a realistic timeline to convert from coal to natural gas or to have environmental safeguards in place at the plant to stop the toxic emissions.
It’s time to negotiate an agreement and get this issue settled once and for all. The players must be willing to compromise in the quest of a permanent solution.
The environmentalists make a strong case against the consequences of the status quo.
Craig Benjamin, a spokesman for an environmental lobbying group that sets the top three or four legislative priorities every year, said, “Burning coal is probably the worst thing we can do from an environmental perspective,”
Ecology Department spokesman Seth Preston said the TransAlta plant contributes about 10 percent of the state’s greenhouse-gas emissions, giving off about 10 million metric tons of the gases per year.
According to a January report by a group called Environment Washington, the Centralia plant also ranked 125th in the nation in 2009 in terms of mercury pollution, emitting 361 pounds of the toxic metal. In response, TransAlta said it would install technology to reduce its mercury emissions 50 percent by 2012.
Conservationist groups also charge that periodic haziness at Mount Rainier National Park is caused exclusively by the Centralia plant, which according to 2008 EIA data emitted nearly 10.5 million tons of CO2, the equivalent of what 1.8 million cars release in a year.
Beyond the environmental damage, Benjamine notes that Washington doesn’t see many benefits from the plant. Much of the power it generates ends up being sold to California, and the company headquarters are in Calgary, Alberta, meaning profits end up in Canada.
TransAlta argues that it’s on a path to phase out coal by the governor’s deadline and moving the deadline forward by 10 years is simply not feasible. “From our viewpoint, we still need that time to protect jobs and provide a reliable energy supply,” said TransAlta spokeswoman Angela Mallow.
Rep. Richard DeBolt, a Chehalis Republican and House minority leader, has a clear conflict on this issue as he is employed by TransAlta as an external relations director. He said House Bill 1825 would leave people in Centralia without work and jeopardize a steady power supply for the state. “We care about this community, and it’s clear that the people who drafted this bill do not,” he said.
DeBolt’s comment rings hollow, however, considering the fact that TransAlta made the decision in November 2006 to stop mining coal at the Centralia site. Some 600 employees lost their jobs with little notice. How much did TransAlta care about the community with that surprise announcement?
All the players involved in this dispute share a concern about the degradation of the environment. Each proposes a different solution to get to the same goal — cleaner air quality. They must use that common ground as the base of a reasonable compromise that will settle this contentious issue — now.