By: Nick Engelfried
The major Oregon utility Portland General Electric (PGE) has been found by the US Environmental Protection Agency to be in violation of the Clean Air Act. According to a “notice of violation” filed by the EPA, the utility’s Boardman Coal Plant in northeastern Oregon has been out of compliance with federal clean air rules since 1998. PGE will now have the opportunity to meet with EPA representatives to discuss how the company will bring the plant into compliance.
Because it was grandfathered in under the Clean Air Act in the late 1970s, the Boardman Plant has operated for years without pollution controls required on newer coal-burning power plants. A lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups argued that upgrades made to the Boardman Plant during the last two decades should have caused the plant to lose its grandfathered status, triggering the need for new pollution controls.
Now the EPA has come to a similar conclusion: according to the agency, upgrades made in 1998 and 2004 meant the plant should have been required to install new controls for sulfur dioxide pollution that causes acid rain.
“The federal agency in charge of protecting the environment just told PGE that they are not complying with laws that are there to protect people from dangerous air pollution,” said Cesia Kearns, Regional Representative for the Sierra Club’s Oregon Beyond Coal campaign.
The announcement from the EPA comes after months of public engagement on the part of Oregonians concerned about the Boardman Plant’s pollution. Last month, Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality held public hearings throughout the state to help determine what kind of pollution controls the coal plant should be subjected to. At hearings in Portland, Eugene, Medford, and other Oregon cities, members of the public raised concerns about Boardman Coal Plant’s contribution to smog, acid rain, and other environmental problems.
Though the EPA’s process for determining compliance with clean air laws is separate from state processes, the EPA’s notice of violation adds urgency to the task of state lawmakers. If the state approves a plan for the coal plant that turns out to be inconsistent with the Clean Air Act, the decision could be appealed to the federal government.
“EPA’s action removes all doubt that allowing PGE to operate Boardman without significant pollution reductions is simply irresponsible,” said Michael Lang, representing the group Friends of the Columbia Gorge.
The Sierra Club and a coalition of other health and environmental groups are pushing to have the Boardman Plant closed within five years—a move that would of course eliminate all pollution from the plant. Meanwhile PGE is asking state regulators to let it continue burning coal until at least the year 2020 while putting on a certain limited new pollution controls. These new pollution controls are less than what the EPA has now said PGE is required by law to install. Environmental groups hope the EPA’s announcement will prompt the utility and state regulators to take the 2015 closure date more seriously.
Photo credit: Nick Engelfried