Will Washington Legislators Protect Public Health from Coal Pollution?

On Wednesday Washington’s state legislature began a process that could lead to improved public health, environmental protection, and the assurance of long-term employment opportunities for vulnerable workers, provided legislators take advantage of this crucial opportunity.  During the 2011 legislative session, lawmakers will consider a bill environmental and health groups hope will transition Washington off the TransAlta Coal Plant by 2015 or sooner.  A crucial element of the bill (for which exact language has yet to be finalized) is it must protect workers at the TransAlta Plant by guaranteeing them new employment opportunities during the inevitable shift from coal to clean energy.  Yesterday Washington’s Senate Environment, Water, & Energy Committee held its first hearing to help legislators begin crafting a coal bill.

In the morning before Thursday’s hearing, Washington residents from the Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia, and Vancouver areas made the rounds of state legislator offices in the capitol, explaining to lawmakers why transitioning off coal must be a priority.  The TransAlta Coal Plant is Washington’s biggest source of carbon dioxide that contributes to global warming, as well as nitrous oxides, sulfur dioxide, mercury, and many other toxic compounds that cause heart and respiratory illness, cancer, and other health problems. 

At the same time it has become clearer than ever that TransAlta is unnecessary to the grid, and Washington residents are suffering the impacts of coal pollution for little or no real gain.  By passing a bill that responsibly transitions off TransAlta while providing for workers in the nearby community, the state can ensure the inevitable move away from coal happens in a smooth and timely manner.

After visiting the offices of individual legislators, our group went to listen to the committee hearing on TransAlta.  The title of the  hearing was “The Role of Coal in Meeting Washington’s Electric Needs.”  Yet as it went on, it seemed clear that in Washington’s energy future, the role of coal should be very limited, or even nonexistent.  Committee members heard from energy experts and researchers representing university studies, major utilities, the Renewable Northwest Project, Bonneville Power Administration, natural gas trade associations, and the nonprofit membership corporation ColumbiaGrid.  This hardly sounds like a list of dreamy-eyed environmental idealists, and indeed these people showed their deep understanding of Washington’s electricity needs and the national energy scene.  But most seemed to be in agreement that viable alternatives to coal exist, and Washington is fully capable of powering its grid without relying on the TransAlta Coal Plant.

TransAlta’s dirty secret is it doesn’t actually do much to supply Washington’s grid with electricity.  TransAlta is a merchant power provider not required to divulge where it sells its energy, but as far as anyone can tell  most of the electricity is sold out of state.  None of the utility representatives testifying yesterday listed TransAlta as an essential resource, driving home the point that this 1,400 megawatt polluter is dumping toxins into Washington’s skies without proving it delivers many major benefits.  Taking TransAlta off the grid by 2015 presents some technical challenges, but these are far from insurmountable.  According to the testimony Jon Kaake, President and CEO of ColumbiaGrid, Washington can make its grid work for customers with or without the TransAlta Plant.

While transitioning off coal is a win-win for Washington residents, TransAlta and its allies in state government will push back as hard as they can in hopes of burning coal as long as possible.  Yet while environmental and health groups can’t compete with corporate interests when it comes to funding, we’ve got something they haven’t got: a genuine people-powered movement.  Already Washingtionians of all ages are speaking out against pollution from the TransAlta Plant, and the citizen push to for a healthier clean energy future is sure to continue.

Now the Senate Environment, Water, & Energy Committee, chaired by Senator Phil Rockefeller, has the job of translating citizen concerns into legislative action.  Washingtonians are calling for a transition off coal no later than 2015.  It is time for the legislature to deliver.

About Nick

Nick is a freelance writer, climate activist, and a graduate student at the University of Montana. He got his start in activism by helping to establish a new campus recycling system at Portland Community College; since then he has organized to stop fossil fuel projects and open up space for clean energy in Oregon, Washington, and Montana. Nick is currently working with activists throughout the Greater Northwest to protect Northwest communities from coal export projects. When not in school or organizing for a clean energy future, he can be found hiking in the natural areas around Missoula, bird watching, or writing a novel.

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