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Environmental activists work to take away Washington’s coal

The Olympia Report

Olympia, WA – 7/30/2012 – A coalition of environmental activists filed notice on Wednesday they plan to sue the six companies that own and operate eastern Montana’s Colstrip power plant – which provides about half the electric power consumed by Puget Sound Energy which, in turn, accounts for around 18 percent of all electricity in Washington state.

At the same time, PSE and TransAlta have entered into a power purchase contract for coal transition power from the Centralia generating station.

If approved by state utility regulators, the agreement would benefit PSE customers by providing them another source of low-cost power, while providing momentum to a separate TransAlta agreement to phase out coal-fired power generation in Washington by 2025.

“PSE may soon face a decision much like the one that Seattle City Light confronted a decade ago,” wrote environmental blogger Jennifer Langston. “Complying with pending regulations to better control air toxins, coal ash, and regional haze that affects national parks could cost Colstrip’s owners hundreds of millions of dollars. Choosing the pathway that Seattle City Light took — by divesting itself of its stake in the polluting Colstrip plant — would truly put Puget Sound Energy at the forefront of clean energy leaders in the U.S.”

The Sierra Club and Montana Environmental Information Center accuse the plant’s owners of neglecting to upgrade pollution-control equipment – a requirement under the Clean Air Act for older power generation facilities that undergo significant changes.

Colstrip is the second largest coal-fired power plant west of the Mississippi River, burning over 10 million tons of the fuel a year to generate about 2,200 megawatts of electricity. That power is distributed on high-voltage transmission lines to customers in Montana, Oregon and Washington state.

Attorneys for the environmental groups note that the plant has undergone at least eight “major modifications” since 1992.

Those changes “would result in emission increases of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter,” the groups stated in a Wednesday letter to the plants owners. Those pollutants can cause health problems in people and are linked to environmental problems including acid rain, haze and surface water degradation.

“We’re pretty confident that over the long haul and with the amount of money invested in those plants, they much more qualify as upgrades rather than maintenance,” Ken Toole, a former Montana Public Service Commissioner and member of the Montana Environmental Information Center, told CBS News.

The 60-day notice of the environmental groups’ intent to sue in federal court was sent to the plant’s six co-owners — PPL Montana, NorthWestern Energy, Puget Sound Energy, Portland General Electric, Avista and PacifiCorp.

“I see this as another effort to continue this attack on coal,” PPL Montana spokesman David Hoffman said of Wednesday’s notice. “We take plants offline on a regular basis for maintenance, just like you might have oil changed in your car.”

The first two units of the power plant began operating in the mid-1970s and two more units came online in 1984 and 1986.

Because the plant was grandfathered in under the Clean Air Act, it was not required to comply with tougher pollution control standards unless the plant’s operator made upgrades modernizing it.

Ironically, the millions of dollars the company spent to make it cleaner may have given environmental activists the opening to shut it down entirely.

PSE spokesman Grant Ringel says the Colstrip plant has added scrubbers and other modern pollution controls that meet or surpass the requirements of the Clean Air Act.

Meanwhile, the US Environmental Protection Agency is preparing to start regulating emissions of greenhouse gases from power plants. It’s those gases, groups like the Sierra Club argue, that make coal the most harmful fuel for the global climate.

“We will comply with regulations as they change,” Ringel said. “We are not married to any particular technology. We have a history of making adjustments, and if a plant no longer serves our customers, we won’t use it. Right now, Colstrip does serve our customers very well.”

Nationwide, coal was responsible for slightly more than 42 percent of electricity generated in the U.S. during 2011, more than any other source of electricity.

And according to EIA and EPA data, emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and particulate matter (PM) per kilowatt-hour from coal-fueled electricity generation have been reduced by almost 90 percent over the period 1970-2011.

Approximately $100 billion has been invested to achieve these emission reductions and by 2015, more than 90 percent of U.S. coal-fueled electric generating capacity will install clean coal technologies and other advanced emission controls to reduce emissions of SO2, NOx, PM, mercury, acid gases, and non-mercury metals.

By state law, the TransAlta plant in Centralia must stop burning coal by the year 2025. But Ringel says Puget Sound Energy has no plans to stop using coal at its plant in Montana.

“We’re very sensitive to keeping our customers’ bills reasonable,” he said. “Colstrip plays a key role in keeping costs down, and it is in compliance with environmental regulations.”

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