House Approves Plan to Wean Washington Off Coal by Closing Centralia Power Plant

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This spring in Washington, black is out and green is in. The state's House of Representatives voted to reform the state's medical-marijuana law yesterday, and they also approved a deal to shutter the state's only coal-fired power plant by 2025. The coal legislation is being hailed as boon for environmentalists and a model for bipartisan compromise. But how does it affect the rural community in southwest Washington where the power plant has been one of the largest employers for decades?

Growing up a few miles outside of Centralia in Lewis County, everybody knew somebody who worked for TransAlta. Several of my family's close friends were machine operators there. My father hunted pheasants on the game reserve that's on mine property, land repurposed after the soil had been stripped away years prior.

Just 10 years ago, the TransAlta plant was the economic anchor of that oft-overlooked part of Washington. (Unless of course you count the burgeoning industry of meth manufacturing.) Nobody cared that the facility is the state's #1 source of greenhouse gases, mercury, and nitrogen oxide, and #2 of sulfur dioxide, the stuff that causes acid rain. The prevailing sentiment was that the environment means little compared to keeping people employed.

Then about five years ago, the layoffs happened. Almost 600 people--almost all of them men and breadwinners--lost their jobs when TransAlta shut down the mining operation in Centralia. The plant would still burn coal, but it would not come from the ground below. In a small town, 600 jobs was a crippling blow. My family's friends ended working temporary jobs operating heavy machinery at logging and construction sites. Others, the less fortunate or skilled, probably started making meth.

Now, as part of the deal to shut down one of two boilers at the plant by 2020 and phase out coal-burning by 2025, TransAlta says it will contribute $55 million in economic development in the region, with $25 million of that going toward developing renewable-energy programs. That's a sizable stimulus package for a community that badly needs one.

The sweetened deal drew bipartisan support. Dan Swecker, a Republican from nearby Rochester, signed off on the agreement. Richard DeBolt, the House Republican leader who works as TransAlta's communications and community relations director, recused himself from voting but expressed support for the legislation. On the other side of the issue, even the Sierra Club has endorsed the proposal. Altogether, measure SB 5769 passed by a margin of 87-9. The bill now heads to the Senate, where it's expected to pass, and then to Governor Gregoire.

The deal marks the end of a long and occasionally dark era for Centralia. Land was destroyed and the environment often took a back seat to economic necessity. We as a state are addicted to electricity, and TransAlta Centralia provided a coal-fired fix. Now Washington is taking the initiative and, hopefully, keeping the Canadian-based company accountable for cleaning up its act and for keeping Lewis County from further financial ruin.

Of course, the state will still be developing shipping terminals in Cowlitz County and Bellingham, where millions of tons of coal will be exported to Asia. The greenhouse gases will still be emitted, but somewhere on the other side of the globe. I imagine a city in rural China is building a coal power plant as I type this, primed to become that country's version of Lewis County.

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