Washington State Approves Coal Plant Pollution

Conservation groups work to get stronger pollution controls


Janette Brimmer, Earthjustice, (206) 343-7340, ext. 29
Kathleen O’Neil, National Parks Conservation Association, (202) 419-3717
Doug Howell, Sierra Club, (206) 378-0114, ext. 304
Mark Riskedahl, Northwest Environmental Defense Center, (503) 768-6673

Conservation groups today objected to a proposal by the state of Washington to allow a dirty old coal plant to skirt strict air pollution standards. The proposed deal, between the Washington State Department of Ecology and TransAlta Corp.’s coal-burning power plant in Centralia, promises the state will delay or avoid stricter controls far into the future. In formal comments objecting to the deal, the conservation groups told the state the deal is contrary to the law, not supported by science or established engineering, and fails to protect the public and state natural resources from harmful pollution. 

“Ecology’s agreement is extremely disappointing,” said Janette Brimmer, an attorney with Earthjustice, the public interest law firm representing the conservation groups. “The agreement essentially allows this dirty old coal plant a pass on pollution controls that can make a real difference on air pollution that is harming our children and contaminating our national parks. This agreement doesn’t even come up to the level that many other plants in other states are meeting. For the most part, it seems like business as usual.”

The agreement was the result of earlier closed-door negotiations over the last two years on which the state has now asked for public input. The comment period ends today.

The coal plant is the second worst haze-causing power plant in the country. Its pollution reduces air quality in 12 protected areas, including in Mt. Rainier and Olympic National Parks. Pollution from the plant also impairs air quality in North Cascades National Park, as well as the Alpine Lakes and Goat Rocks Wildernesses and many other forest, wilderness and recreational areas throughout the region. Federal law requires these areas to have the cleanest, best-protected air quality. The plant is also the leading source of toxic mercury pollution in the state.

The comments filed by the conservation groups shed light on an agreement between Ecology and TransAlta where the state and its citizens get little actual pollutant reduction and the coal plant gets promises from Ecology to delay or avoid stricter controls far into the future. Dr. Ranajit Sahu, the air quality expert retained by the groups, pointed out many areas where the plant was performing much more poorly than many other coal plants and where TransAlta and Ecology had failed to provide adequate engineering or scientific analysis of how to better control pollutants at the plant. In many instances, Ecology appears to have simply accepted TransAlta’s unsupported information with few to no questions.

Comments by the conservation groups point to many disappointing features of the agreement and especially the lack of analysis behind it. For example, TransAlta

  • Is not subject to the Best Available Retrofit Technology (BART) for nitrogen oxide (NOx) that is damaging our national parks and wilderness areas.

  • Is not required to do anything additional to control nitrogen oxide (NOx) pollution that is it not already doing and is protected from having to do additional reductions for ten years or more.

  • Is not required to look into why the plant’s NOx pollution is so much higher than the rest of the industry.

  • Will do minimal mercury control, well below industry standards and with no ability for the state to enforce even the minimal controls. Mercury is a potent toxin particularly harmful to young children and developing fetuses;

  • In return, Ecology agrees to “hands-off” treatment of TransAlta’s coal burning plant for the next decade on a number of pollution issues. For example,

  • The state agrees to become TransAlta’s partner in seeking accommodation and or positive treatment from the EPA on a number of pollution issues;

  • The state agrees to look kindly on a wide-ranging list of potential TransAlta proposals for dealing with coal ash waste—waste that contains a cocktail of toxic heavy metals which typically include mercury, arsenic and chromium.

“Washington State has not lived up to its responsibilities to protect its citizens and its treasured national parks,” said Stephanie Kodish, clean air counsel for the National Parks Conservation Association. “The agreement fails to require basic pollution controls that would improve air quality, and instead allows TransAlta to continue degrading state’s air, including a dozen protected public lands, where it should be cleanest.”

The conservation groups strongly urge the state to reject the proposed agreement and engage in a full-scale thorough BART analysis for nitrogen oxides. They also call for an aggressive case-by-case mercury control plan, to bring the plant in line with industry, which has achieved more than 90 percent reductions in the amount of mercury released.

“As the state’s largest polluter for global warming, mercury and haze, the cumulative impact of this plant affects Washingtonians from every walk of life,” said Doug Howell, Sierra Club’s Coal-Free Northwest Campaign Director. “The State should not move forward with the Settlement Agreement as proposed until a more substantive review can take place.”

The comments were filed with Washington state on November 9, 2009, by Earthjustice on behalf of Sierra Club, National Parks Conservation Association, and Northwest Environmental Defense Center. 

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