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State Deal with Washington Coal Plant a “Huge Disappointment”

Coalition takes the fight to court

The state of Washington announced a deal with Canadian-based TransAlta Corp. last week to "clean up" pollution from mercury and oxides of nitrogen. But the plan is sorely lacking.

A coalition of faith, environmental and public health groups are working to see the TransAlta coal plant, the state's largest single pollution source, converted to cleaner fuels or shut down by 2015. Coalition members were not impressed by this sweetheart deal and have already taken their case to the courts.

TransAlta is by far Washington's largest emitter of neurotoxic mercury, and of the NOx pollution that contributes to haze over numerous national parks and wilderness areas in the Pacific Northwest.

The deal is a "huge disappointment," said Earthjustice attorney Janette Brimmer, who had petitioned EPA to revoke the plant's air permit. The new plan was "virtually unchanged" after a year and a half of debate and thousands of public comments that went largely ignored.

"Mercury is a well-known neurotoxin that affects the developing and adult nervous systems. We need to stop emitting mercury into air where it settles in our waterways and accumulates in fish," said Dr. Steven Gilbert, toxicologist and President of Washington State Physicians for Social Responsibility. "The state's agreement with TransAlta does not go far enough to adequately protect public health."

Under the agreement, TransAlta will "voluntarily" reduce mercury emissions by just 50 percent, when available off-the-shelf technologies (the same technologies TransAlta plans to use) can reduce these pollutants more than 90 percent and are already required in some Midwestern states.

For this measly step, the state agreed to not impose any additional regulations on the plant's NOx emissions until 2018. TransAlta will not be required to do anything different than what it is already doing because the state decided that it did not want to make TransAlta spend the money for better controls. What little TransAlta is already doing is having significant adverse effects on national parks. Apparently the state does not think protecting the air of national parks and wilderness areas is worth the money.

Not only are activists concerned about the NOx deal, the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service urged the state environmental agency to not limit itself from opportunities to reduce haze-causing emissions over the next two decades. With state plans due every decade, this deal could prevent the stronger NOx standards until 2028.

The recent mercury agreement is yet another chapter in a growing trend of the state protecting TransAlta rather than the people of Washington and doing so without any real, serious opportunity for the public to participate.

First, the state defended tax subsidies for TransAlta in the last legislative session. Last month, the state set standards for TransAlta's haze-related emissions which were harshly criticized by the National Park Service. Now, the state has set a voluntary 50-percent reduction for the toxic mercury when some states mandate 90-percent reductions.

"This does not bode well for the on-going negotiations between the state and TransAlta about the timeline for shutting down or converting this dirty, old coal plant," said Brimmer. "We now see that the state and the corporation cut the deal and that the late public input is treated as a formality at best."

"This is strike three," said Doug Howell, director of Sierra Club's Coal Free Washington. "How can we expect the state to adequately address climate pollution in their current negotiations with TransAlta when they have repeatedly failed to protect the public interest?"

We will keep you informed as Washington's fight for clean air moves to the next stage.

We're the lawyers for the environment, and the law is on our side.