Bill Passes Senate: Washington to be Coal-Free by 2025


   The state Senate passed a bill Saturday that would make Washington the first coal-free state by 2025.

    The legislation would gradually phase out TransAlta’s Centralia coal plant by taking one of the facility’s two boilers offline by 2020 and the other by 2025.

    “What a proud day for the Centralia community, and all of Washington state,” Gov. Chris Gregoire said in a prepared statement. “This compromise promises cleaner air for our future, while providing the necessary time to ensure economic stability, job protection and enough power to the grid to keep our homes and businesses running.”

    Years of negotiations and political wrangling was wrapped up earlier this week when the governor’s office, Legislature and TransAlta were able to broker a deal, a deal that received bipartisan support on the Senate floor when it passed 36-13.

    “This agreement is a significant step forward,” said Sen. Phil Rockefeller, D-Bainbridge Island, chief sponsor of the bill. “It’s important to the community, of which they are a major employer. It’s important to the well being citizens at large and the families whose members work at that facility. ... And finally it is important to our public as a state because it assists us in providing cleaner air and healthier air for our citizens to breath.”

     “This bill creates a future for TransAlta and the Lewis County community up until 2025 and creates an immediate and drastic pollution reduction by 2013,” said Sen. Dan Swecker, R-Rochester.

    The Canadian-based energy company is in the midst of installing $20 million to $30 million upgrades that would cut the plant’s mercury emissions by 50 percent at the start of 2012. The legislation would also require the plant to spend $30 million on technology that would further reduce the facility’s emissions of nitrogen oxides by 2013.

    “The bill is a positive step for our company, our employees and our community,” said Lou Florence, director of operations at the Centralia plant. “It provides us with greater clarity, clear targets and a defined framework to begin working within. We understand the impact to jobs is a key concern for our employees and Lewis County. Our goal has and will continue to be to protect the jobs of Centralia employees and provide further economic development opportunities for Lewis County.”

    The bill tries to ensure the county’s economic viability by having the company provide $30 million to a community investment fund for energy efficiency projects and another $25 million for clean energy technology development to promote clean power across the state.

    TransAlta will be allowed to enter into long-term energy contracts with state utility companies as a means to offset the costs of the upgrades and contributions to the community fund. The Canadian company will also be exempt from a $1.60 per metric ton of carbon dioxide tax if a natural gas-fired power generation facility is built in Lewis County.

    Environmental groups have given the OK to the current agreement.

    “A lot of communities are moving in this direction,” said Kathleen Ridihalgh, senior field manager for Sierra Club, about slowly moving away from coal. “We’re proud, and we feel like we have a model that other communities can learn from.”

    The state Legislature and executive office will work to convince federal environmental agencies to make the Centralia plant exempt from upcoming standards that would require the plant to spend $500 million on pollution reducing upgrades. If they’re unsuccessful, the deal would be scrapped. 

    The bill now moves over to the House for consideration and will first be heard in the Environment Committee.

    This agreement could be the finale to a years long battle on what to do with the 1,376-megawatt plant. This year’s legislative session alone had contentious testimony during workshops and hearings, as both sides of the coal debate argued their points of view.

    Detractors of the plant pointed to coal’s harmful impacts on the environment and children, while supporters argued the closure of the plant would destabilize the state’s energy grid and cripple the Lewis County with massive job losses.

    TransAlta spokesperson Angela Mallow said the average age of the company’s employees is between 47 and 48 years old. Layoffs wouldn’t be necessary as attrition would slowly reduce the plant’s 280 employees by 2025. Mallow added TransAlta will also invest in training workers to man their natural gas plant, when the company switches fuel sources. The natural gas plant will require less than 100 employees.