PGE to cut emissions at coal-fired plant

Utility reaches settlement with environmental groups

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

Published:

Updated: July 19, 2011, 5:23 PM

 

Portland General Electric, owner of a northeastern Oregon coal-fired plant that is a major source of air pollution in the Columbia River Gorge, has agreed to pay $2.5 million to restore land on both sides of the Columbia River, create clean-energy jobs and reduce pollution in advance of a 2020 state-mandated deadline for ending the burning of coal at its Boardman plant.

The settlement was announced Tuesday by Friends of the Columbia Gorge, the Sierra Club, Columbia Riverkeeper, the Northwest Environmental Defense Center and the Hells Canyon Preservation Council and by PGE.

“This settlement is a win for the environment, for human health and for special places like the Columbia River Gorge,” said Friends conservation director Michael Lang. “It means that over the next 10 years, air quality will improve in the Columbia Gorge and Gorge residents can breathe cleaner air. It also means that PGE will agree to pay to restore damage from 30 years of emissions.”

Emissions from the 550-megawatt Boardman plant, Oregon’s only coal-fired plant, are a major contributor to impaired visibility in the Gorge. A study released last year by the Yakama Nation revealed that PGE Boardman is responsible for up to 50 percent of air pollution in the Gorge during periods when air quality there is at its worst. Those days tend to be in the fall and winter, when prevailing winds are from the east.

Year-round, a separate study found that the Boardman plant contributes an average of 14.9 percent of the fine particles measured at a federal air quality monitoring site in the Gorge.

Pollution from the plant and other sources affects visibility in 11 national parks and wilderness areas, as well as in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. It creates haze as far away as Mount Rainier National Park and the Mount Adams Wilderness Area in Washington and the Mount Hood and Eagle Cap wilderness areas in Oregon.

PGE issued a statement saying it had entered a consent decree with the environmental groups in U.S. District Court in Portland to resolve allegations of federal Clean Air Act violations at the plant, which the company continues to contest. The consent decree settles a lawsuit filed by the environmental groups in 2008. It requires approval by the court following a 45-day review period by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Justice.

The settlement requires PGE to cut emissions of sulfur dioxide at the plant by at least 3,000 tons below levels set by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality in December 2010. The company also agreed in the settlement to let environmental groups monitor pilot studies beginning in 2013 to establish final sulfur dioxide limits.

“The Boardman plant operated for decades without modern pollution controls,” said Mark Riskedahl, executive director of the Northwest Environmental Defense Center. “Not only does this agreement ensure that the unnecessary degradation will stop, but it makes great strides toward remediating the damage.”

The plant was authorized in 1975, two years before 1977 amendments to the Clean Air Act imposed stricter controls on coal plant emissions.

The groups said their case against PGE was strengthened when, after they filed their lawsuit, the EPA issued a notice of violation against the company similar to the violations charged in their own lawsuit.

PGE agreed to provide $2.5 million to the Oregon Community Foundation for environmental projects in the Gorge and in northeastern Oregon and to pay $1 million in plaintiffs’ legal expenses. Of the total, $1 million will go for habitat protection and restoration in the Columbia River Gorge; $625,000 for projects in the Blue Mountains, Hells Canyon and the Wallowa Mountains of northeastern Oregon; $500,000 for local clean energy projects such as solar panels on houses; and $375,000 for community-based efforts to reduce air pollution.

“We work closely with our state and federal regulators as part of our commitment to comply with application statues, permits and regulations,” said PGE President and CEO Jim Piro in a statement. “While we believe we have strong defenses against the claims, we think it’s time to put the lawsuit behind us.”

With the Boardman plant scheduled to stop burning coal by the end of 2020, and Washington’s only coal-fired plant, the TransAlta plant in Centralia, now slated to shut down in 2025, the two Northwest states are on track to be coal-free in 14 years.

Kathie Durbin: 360-735-4523 or kathie.durbin@columbian.com.