Washington to End Coal Burning Within its Borders

On Thursday the Washington state legislature passed a law that will gradually phase out the burning of coal in the state over the next fourteen years.  Washington’s one existing coal-burning facility, the TransAlta Plant located near Centralia, will be required to end coal combustion at one of its twin boilers in 2020.  Use of coal in the other boiler will stop five years later.  The TransAlta Plant will also have to install pollution control equipment to reduce regional haze before 2013.  Finally, TransAlta will direct $30 million toward job creation and energy efficiency in the community near the coal plant, and will provide $25 million to go toward clean energy projects in Washington.

The legislation is the result of a deal agreed on between Canadian-based TransAlta Corporation, Washington environmental groups, labor unions, and Governor Christine Gregoire earlier this legislative session.  Environmental organizations had originally hoped to see coal at TransAlta completely eliminated by 2015, but opposition from the labor community made such an outcome all but impossible this year.  In this context the agreement to begin phasing coal out in 2020 drew praise from environmental groups like the Sierra Club.

“Washington has created a model for the nation of how investing in the transition to a clean-energy future can create jobs and a healthy economy,” said Andrew Rose, volunteer chair of the Sierra Club’s Washington Beyond Coal campaign.

Washington’s passage of legislation to phase out the TransAlta Plant is the latest in a series of recent state and regional decisions that will retire coal plants all over the country.  Last year state regulators in Oregon agreed to phase out that state’s only coal plant no later than 2020.  Earlier this month, the US Environmental Protection Agency came to a settlement over pollution with the Tennessee Valley Authority that will result in eighteen aging coal plants closing between now and 2017.  Other plants across the country, especially the oldest and dirtiest ones, are under pressure to close due to public health concerns.  On Wednesday six environmental justice activists occupied a coal plant in Chicago to protest pollution of nearby communities.

Burning coal releases toxic chemicals like mercury and arsenic, as well as emissions that cause acid rain and smog pollution.  The health effects of coal pollution include asthma, heart disease, cancer, and neurological damage.  Replacing coal plants with cleaner energy sources will also reduce the risk of catastrophic climate change, because coal releases more carbon when burned than almost any other fuel.  Retiring coal plants has become a national priority for environmental nonprofits.  The Sierra Club, one of the nation’s largest and oldest green organizations, has set a goal of transitioning the US completely off coal by the year 2030. 

Eliminating Washington’s only coal-fired power plant will bring the country one step closer to the goal of a coal-free future.  With around 600 coal plants spread across the country, much still remains to be done.  The greatest concentrations of coal plants are located in the East and Midwest, so western states with fewer plants to begin with have unsurprisingly been the first to mandate an end to coal combustion in their borders.  Washington’s new law positions the state to be a leader in the low-carbon economy.

“Passage of this bill marks a milestone on the path to a coal-free future for Washington and a significant step toward a clean energy economy for our state,” said Kristina Dumas of Environment Washington, praising Thursday’s legislative victory. “Now is the time to further explore and embrace cleaner, greener sources of energy like the sun and wind.”

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/theslowlane/1668833813/

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