Hundreds Rally for a Coal Free Washington

February 21, 2011- Nick Engelfried

Last week more than five hundred residents of the state of Washington converged in the capitol city of Olympia to push for environmental priorities—including proposed legislation that would end coal burning in the state over the next several years.  If these activists get their way, Washington could become the next state in the US to fully embrace a clean energy future free from the pollution caused by coal. 

For this year’s Environmental Lobby Day in Washington, environmentally concerned citizens from Seattle, Tacoma, Bellingham, Vancouver and other communities around the state came to the capitol to ask legislators to support policies that make the air safe to breathe, protect waterways from pollution, and ensure the health of natural ecosystems.  Sponsored by the Environmental Priorities Coalition, a partnership of twenty-five environmental organizations in Washington, Environmental Lobby Day is an annual statewide event.  However this year one of the Coalition’s chosen priorities made Environmental Lobby Day a moment of national significance. 

Environmental groups have set their sights on phasing out the burning of coal in Washington—a move that would put the state on the forefront of the fight against climate change and pollution.  The Coal Free Future for Washington bill, which is now being considered by Washington’s House Environment Committee, would gradually transition the state off reliance on Washington’s only coal plant, the TransAlta facility located near the city of Centralia.  Closing the TransAlta Plant would make Washington one of the first states to end coal combustion within its borders, and would establish a precedent for other states seeking to reduce their reliance on dirty fossil fuels.

“Washington stands at a crossroads,” said Chris Gamble, a graduate student at University of Washington who spoke at a press conference on Tuesday.  “We can continue to rely on dirty coal power, or embrace the clean energy of the future.”

In addition to environmental organizations, public health groups like Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility and faith organizations like Ecumenical Ministries are supporting the push for a coal free future.  Student groups at colleges and universities around the state are organizing support for the transition off coal, and three student governments have passed resolutions urging the TransAlta Coal Plant by replaced with clean energy.

The TransAlta Coal Plant is Washington’s single largest source of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and mercury pollution.  Its two smokestacks also emit sulfur dioxide, arsenic, lead, and many other toxic compounds.  The health impacts of pollution from coal plants like TransAlta include asthma and other respiratory illnesses, as well as heart disease, cancer, and damage to the nervous system.  Thus the debate over the coal plant’s future has become a matter that is as much about public health as it is about climate change.

On Tuesday the Washington House Environment Committee held a hearing on the Coal Free Future bill, taking public testimony both from supporters and from those who oppose the bill.  The committee is expected to vote on the bill Thursday; meanwhile a similar piece of legislation has been introduced in the Washington Senate. 

If passed into law, the bill would end coal combustion at TransAlta completely in 2020, with important interim targets for reducing coal use along the way.  The 2020 closure of the plant would be achieved by in that year requiring that existing power plants in Washington be held to the same pollution standards which new plants are already required to meet under state law.  Though standard would theoretically be applied to all existing power plants in Washington, TransAlta is the only power plant in the state dirty enough to be affected.

Photo credit: Robert Ashworth

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