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Bill sets plans to end TransAlta’s coal use

The Columbian
Published: February 27, 2011, 12:00am

It’s time to clear the air regarding legislation ensuring a responsible, well-planned transition for Washington state beyond dirty, outdated coal. First, let’s establish why we need legislation.

We need to phase out coal-burning for power production to protect Washington families from harmful health effects. And we have a moral responsibility to phase out coal-burning at the TransAlta plant in a way that strengthens the local economy and takes care of the community. The sooner we act, the better.

The coal-fired generating facility in Centralia is Washington’s only coal-fired power plant. TransAlta, the Canadian energy company that owns the plant, has not offered any plan to phase out coal, though they have stated they agree it needs to happen. Right now, TransAlta has no legal obligation to stop burning coal in Washington, ever. While Gov. Chris Gregoire urged 2025 as a closure deadline in her 2009 executive order, it’s merely a goal. There is no agreement in place.

TransAlta’s power plant has health and environmental impacts that have been documented by health professionals, air pollution authorities, the Yakama Tribe and the superintendent of Mount Rainier National Park, among numerous others who have testified before the Environment, Water & Energy Committee.

TransAlta is the largest greenhouse gas and mercury polluter in our state. It produces around 10 million metric tons of greenhouse gases each year, 10 percent of our state’s total emissions, and emits more than 400 pounds of mercury annually — in addition to other pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and fine particulates.

My bill, SB 5769, does not abruptly shut down the plant — instead it provides a pathway and incentives and encourages a coal-free date of 2020 in law. Incentives would enable local utilities to enter into long-term contracts with TransAlta for power from a combination of coal and cleaner fuels, as the company backs off coal and moves toward cleaner energy choices.

I urge the Centralia community to actively participate in establishing a plan and securing their future. No one wants a repeat of 2006 when TransAlta shut down the coal mine and laid off 600 employees with one day’s notice.

Cleaner sources

We don’t need to burn coal in Washington to keep the lights on. Most of the power generated at the plant isn’t even consumed in Washington; it’s sold out of state. And, while we need to be careful to ensure baseload replacement power is available in Western Washington, that can be addressed either by TransAlta’s own investment in cleaner energy production — such as natural gas, wind or geothermal — or by reliance on other power producers ready to fill the need.

TransAlta has an existing natural gas plant that it can revamp to meet some of the baseload needs. In addition, Invenergy, in Satsop, will soon have enough natural gas to match TransAlta’s current coal energy production. A 650 MW natural gas plant is in operation, and it will double its capacity by 2015. This site is strategically suited to meet power needs on the west side of the Cascades. Combined, these facilities can replace the existing coal power from TransAlta. TransAlta would submit a plan for approval by the Department of Ecology, including financial assurance mechanisms for site cleanup (such as a performance bond or letter of credit).

It’s time the Legislature, TransAlta and the Centralia community collaboratively agree on a common strategy to create a path to a cleaner energy future, with power, jobs, health and environmental benefits that all can share. In Washington we know that a strong economy and a healthy environment go hand in hand, and this bill will help us get there.

Sen. Phil Rockefeller, D-Bainbridge Island, is chairman of the state Senate Environment, Water & Energy Committee.