April 13, 2011 in Opinion

Coal plant closure benefits everyone

David Camp And Richard Rush Special to The Spokesman-Review
 

Thanks to the hard work of many, Spokane and the rest of Washington are now much closer to a cleaner environment and a stronger economy, as legislation to phase out Washington’s only coal-fired power plant is now rounding third base and heading for home in Olympia.

The TransAlta bill (E2SSB 5769) cleared the Senate and the House by wide margins and passed with ease through two House committees. Now back in the Senate for a second vote, the bill will likely go to the governor’s desk for a signature within days.

What does shutting down a big coal-fired power plant in Centralia mean to us in Spokane? Well, to start, it would make our fish safer to eat. Coal-fired power plants are among the largest sources of mercury, and the reason why the Washington Department of Health just issued a statewide mercury advisory warning women of childbearing years, nursing mothers and small children to severely limit consumption of several inland game fish species. With this legislation, we can look forward to cleaner air and water.

Meanwhile, the costs of climate damage and ocean acidification are mounting around the world, and coal is the primary culprit. Every move we make to limit our own coal consumption makes it that much easier to persuade other nations to join us in a meaningful agreement to save the climate and the oceans.

Even the Inland Northwest is already seeing climate changes with a trend toward earlier snowmelts, smaller snowpacks and lower summer river flows. We also see drier forests, more wildfires and milder winters that allow the northward spread of bark beetles, all of which threaten the wildlands where we hike, hunt and fish. Then consider that we are on the hook for tax dollars to help other states where climate costs are far greater and growing faster.

In reducing all these environmental and economic costs, this bill will repay us many times over.

Aside from climate, there are the simple health savings. Every year, coal plant emissions cost Washingtonians $11.2 million in extra health expenses, largely from respiratory illnesses and the damage done by poisons like mercury, arsenic and lead in our air, food, water and soil. Reducing those expenses is a bonus for even the healthiest among us.

Yes, coal power can seem cheap – but only when we ignore its true costs. Fortunately, Washington is easily able to leave coal entirely because 91 percent of our power comes from hydroelectric dams, wind turbines, nuclear and waste-to-energy plants, all of which have spawned industries that create thousands of high-paying jobs in the Inland Northwest.

That’s why a coalition of environmental organizations, labor unions, and public health and faith groups agreed to a plan with Gov. Chris Gregoire and the TransAlta Corp. that will phase out the Centralia plant’s two massive coal-fired boilers by 2020 and 2025 respectively.

To ease the transition for Centralia, TransAlta has agreed to provide the town $30 million for economic development and utility rate assistance, plus $25 million for energy technologies to help create economic benefits, and the company will also clean the site to ready it for future use.

Moreover, this agreement will open up the largest market opportunity for clean energy sources and a clean energy economy in the region’s history, much of which can benefit the burgeoning clean-tech industry east of the Cascades where dozens of our most successful companies are creating energy efficiency systems for buildings, engines, aircraft and the electrical grid.

Perhaps most impressive is how this agreement finds common ground among environmental groups, labor unions, the business community and Gregoire. Nearly everyone can agree on cleaner air, cleaner water, healthier children and a more powerful economy.

However, the work on this groundbreaking legislation is not quite finished. Help from Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, a champion on this issue, is critical in keeping this legislation from bottlenecking before it reaches the governor’s desk.

Passage of the TransAlta bill will put all of Washington on a path to better health, lower health care costs, cleaner rivers, more productive forests and stronger businesses. For Spokane and the Inland Northwest, we have everything to gain and little to lose. Even though Centralia may seem distant, the benefits of this bill are definitely local.

David Camp is a Spokane business consultant who volunteers with the Sierra Club. Richard Rush is a member of the Spokane City Council.

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