The Spokesman-Review

King Coal, King of Lies

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 6, 2011, 11:46 A.M.

Workers load coal into a truck outside a coal mine in Dadong, Shanxi province, China, in December. China has overtaken the United States as the world’s largest energy consumer. (Associated Press)
Workers load coal into a truck outside a coal mine in Dadong, Shanxi province, China, in December. China has overtaken the United States as the world’s largest energy consumer. (Associated Press)

Shutting Down Dirty Coal Plants in the USA Helps Fuel Dirty Coal Elsewhere

It’s the single largest source of methyl mercury emissions in our state. Washington gets stuck with the pollution but much the profits and energy migrate outside the state.

Trans-Alta in Centralia is a 1,400 megawatt, two-boiler power plant considered a merchant facility – it’s owned by a Canadian company, with 300 employees, supposedly “averaging” $88,000 a year. But the coal-fired juice is hawked out of state. The Canadian CEO and stockholders have little or nothing to do with Washington.

Fighting to get this polluter closed is emblematic of the jobs vs. global and local health debate in the green-sustainability-climate change gambit perpetrated largely by polluting industries with politicians and the law in their back pockets.

Until we have paradigm shift, and move away from a resource exploitation and acquisition (of power and capital and property) model as a species, this argument will forever plague people who can’t look beyond the illogic of allowing human and environmental health risks to be burdened by the present generation and seven generations beyond.

Money and profits shunt any semblance of the precautionary principle.

Major polluting franchises like the U.S., Canada, Australia, the U.K., and Germany must go beyond a patchy triage of carbon offsets and credits to help mitigate toxic pollution and global greenhouse emissions they directly cause because profits hold sway over environmental integrity.

The Environmental Priorities Coalition, Sierra Club, Gov. Gregoire’s office, student groups, coal fire power plant workers, Ecology Department, Environment Washington and others are arguing about when the Trans-Alta boilers will close – 2020 and 2025 – and how to reduce some mercury produced in the dirty process.

Brad Hash, a Montana resident working for the Sierra Club’s get-off-the-coal campaign (Beyond Coal), is back on track to reinvigorate the movement as the Trans-Alta “backroom deal” takes hold while Hash’s coalition partners are moving aggressively to stop literally dozens of daily trainloads of coal from leaving Montana for ports in Longview, Bellingham and Vancouver, Canada.

Gregoire, coal reps and Centralia stakeholders juggled the language and intent of stopping our state’s only coal-fired plant in order to placate those seeing jobs and an infusion of economic stimulus to the community as the default position, over the emissions of arsenic, lead, mercury and a brew of 60 combusted chemicals.

Ironically, K-12, college staff, public service employees and those representing the attendant social safety nets like drug rehab counselors and health workers are protesting in Olympia April 5-8 to hammer home that cutting teachers, collective bargaining and other employees tied to our state’s well being – in the tens of thousands – is not economically sound.

Our society’s various levels of protection are being decimated with nary a spasm from politicians and Canadians with investment stakes in electricity exporting from two coal-fired boilers, yet 300 jobs on the line – many of the Trans-Alta employees are reaching retirement age — seems like the end of the earth.

Here’s a corollary: Americans want the Iraq and Afghanistan adventures ended now, polls show. That means part of the military industrial complex – merchants of war – has to be shut down. Military base closures and jobs cut by the military hardware purveyors mean communities will somehow be affected.

Are we willing to put our money where our mouth is?

Our own Ecology Department points to the Trans-Alta plant as the single source of 10 percent of total greenhouse gases emitted in Washington annually. That’s 10 million metric tons of carbon dioxide and other gases that contribute to global warming.

A recent report by Environment Washington puts the Centralia plant at 125th in the nation in terms of total industrial mercury pollution – 361 pounds of the nervous system-killing metal in 2009. The irony is that Trans-Alta purports it plans to cut that deadly mercury emission total around 50 percent by 2012.

This is the problem with coal, big energy, oil, the entire industry that spends hundreds of millions on propaganda – the numbers belie a huge cognitive dissonance. Where is zero tolerance for energy companies? Who says we have to go along with regulating and then permitting 50 percent of the neurological-killing toxin mercury to be emitted when we have alternatives?

Think about Montana — if it were developed as a wind energy state to the max — being the USA’s power benefactor to the tune of 25 percent of all our electricity coming from one state.

Hash points out that one proposed transmission line has more than a handful of alliances against it. “I would think twice about having one of these 270-foot steel girders running across my property.”

Eminent domain, the viewshed implications, and other issues take down wind power a few notches.

The grid system was built on fossil fuel. “Where you burned it, that’s where the high-voltage transmission lines were built.”

While North Dakota, Wyoming, Montana are rich with wind, the costs of retrofitting our electrical grid and the basic infrastructure are being tossed back and forth like a philosophical hot potato.

West Virginia, where Brad hails from, gets 98 percent of its electricity from coal, while Iowa is at 20 percent of all electricity generation from wind farms. Conservation, renewables, efficiency, lifestyle change, and, heaven forbid, regulating this materials economy that has created an endless stream of junk and soon-to-be-obsolete consumer goods those power plants feed, have to be part of the solution.

Unfortunately, we are subject to the very powerful whim tied to our collective, national psyche — the psychology of pre-investment and basic resistance to change.

This is Part 1 of a two-part piece about coal.

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