In Our View: A Win for Clean Air

Environmentalists, PGE announce agreement; shift to coal-free power production continues

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This is shaping up as a great year for Pacific Northwest air, much of which wafts through and around Clark County.

Tuesday brought the second major environmental victory of the year. Portland General Electric and several of PGE’s former legal foes announced an agreement by which the owner of the Boardman, Ore., coal-burning power plant will pay $2.5 million toward environmental improvement projects on both sides of the Columbia River. The settlement locks in an end to coal-burning at the Boardman plant by the end of 2020, if it is approved by the EPA and the Department of Justice.

This news dovetails encouragingly with action in April by the Washington Legislature, which approved a bill that will phase out the coal-burning TransAlta plant near Centralia starting in 2020, with a complete closure set for 2025.

According to a Wednesday Columbian story, the announcement about PGE’s Boardman plant was applauded by environmental groups Friends of the Columbia River Gorge, the Sierra Club, Columbia Riverkeeper, the Northwest Environmental Defense Center and the Hells Canyon Preservation Council, all parties in a lawsuit against PGE. Friends conservation director, Michael Lang, called the agreement “a win for the environment, for human health and for special places like the Columbia River Gorge. 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.”

The utility’s perspective was presented by PGE President and CEO Jim Piro, whose statement explained, in part: “While we believe we have strong defenses against the claims, we think it’s time to put the lawsuit behind us.”

It’s great to see many stakeholders benefit from this agreement:

First, the legal wrangling in this case appears to be over.

More important, considerable repair work can begin. Much of the $2.5 million that PGE will provide to the Oregon Community Foundation will help habitat protection and restoration projects in the Columbia River Gorge, the Blue Mountains, Hells Canyon and the Wallowa Mountains — as well as clean-energy projects such as solar panels and communities’ pollution-reduction programs.

Count the Columbia River Gorge as one of the chief beneficiaries of the shift away from coal-burning power plants. The Wednesday story also cited studies showing that the Boardman plant contributes as much as half of the air pollution in the Gorge in the fall and winter. The plant also produces an average of 14.9 percent of the particulates in air measured by a federal monitoring station in the Gorge.

Overall, the big winner is the entire Pacific Northwest. Trans-Alta’s 1,460-megawatt Centralia plant is the only coal-burning plant in Washington. PGE’s 550-megawatt Boardman plant is the only such facility in Oregon. To have the former closed by 2025 (in stages starting in nine years), and the latter closed by 2020 means our two states will be free of coal-burning power plants in 14 years.

It would be better if that goal were met sooner, but to have definite plans in place this year for the first time shows how hard Pacific Northwesterners are willing to work to clean up our air. Congratulations to the numerous environmental groups in both states that have collaborated so effectively with each other and with their adversaries to reach these legislative and legal milestones.