In Our View: Closing TransAlta

Coal-fired plant is not in our state’s future, and Senate bill offers best compromise

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TransAlta, the state’s only coal-fired power plant, will be closing. That debate essentially is over, confirmed by this recent statement by company Director Lou Florence in the Centralia Chronicle: “TransAlta supports the goal of a coal-free Washington.”

The lingering question, though, is when the plant near Centralia will close. Many environmental groups such as the Sierra Club — which calls TransAlta the state’s single largest polluter — insist the deadline for plant closure should be 2015. House Bill 1825 lists such a deadline. Others, including Gov. Chris Gregoire, believe 2025 is a more reasonable goal. And Florence was quick to add to the above quote that closing before 2025 “will needlessly hurt our company, jeopardize electric reliability, likely lead to higher electric costs and devastate our community and our work force.”

Why not meet in the middle? That seems like a reasonable compromise, and it’s the bedrock component of Senate Bill 5769, which sets a 2020 goal for closing TransAlta. The bill was passed Friday by the Senate Environment, Water and Energy Committee. Although the bill appears to offer a fair approach, its ultimate fate is uncertain. State Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, is among the bill’s co-sponsors. He said in an e-mail last week: “The political reality is that the Republicans are universally opposed to a 2015 closure and the governor and the Department of Ecology are actively opposing it” while the bill advocating the meet-in-the-middle 2020 closure “provides excellent transition tools for the community and leaves the governor with the discretion of further postponement if there’s a likely negative impact on the economy.”

That negative impact on the Centralia-area economy has many legislators worried. TransAlta employs about 300 workers with an average annual pay of $88,000, according to The News Tribune in Tacoma. And the Chronicle reports the plant’s assessed value in the county is $583 million. This led Lewis County Assessor Dianne Dorey to point out: “The 2007 flood was our last disaster. Removing TransAlta would be our next disaster.”

To address that concern, SB 5769 would designate a trust fund of up to $500,000 in grants through 2013, plus $4 million from 2019 through 2023. And the governor would have the option to extend the deadline if transition goals were not being met. But the 2015ers also present a strong argument for a quicker closure. Steven Gilbert, director of the Institute for Neurotoxicology and Neurological Disorders in Seattle, has said: “For the sake of public health, and specifically children’s public health, we need to phase out the burning of coal by 2015.”

There’s also the momentum provided by the state’s gradual conversion to renewable sources of energy; some of that momentum has been supplied by voters. Anti-coal activist Jennifer Williams told the Chronicle that decommissioning by 2015 is needed because TransAlta “buys the coal from Wyoming, sells the power to California, sends the profits to Canada, while leaving the pollution in Washington.”

Thus, the tug of war continues over making Washington coal-free, and both sides make good points. That’s why the middle ground — a 2020 closure — appears to be equitable. State Sen. Phil Rockefeller, D-Bainbridge, is commended for stepping forth as main sponsor of SB 5769. “My proposal provides for the earliest possible retirement of the TransAlta facility, consistent with the assurance of replacement power and transmission capability to meet in-state base-load power needs. Simultaneously, it provides for investment in economic redevelopment and job creation in the affected community.”

The status quo is unacceptable, and Rockefeller’s bill offers the best alternative.