Cutting Through the Haze

Coal plant pollution: What's the deal?
This post is part of the research project: The Dirt on Coal

rainier haze flickr imbaker3Today, Washington released details of a final agreement to reduce the amount of toxic mercury and smog-causing pollution wafting from the stacks of the Centralia coal plant. That should be a good thing. Except that many folks—from physicians to trout fishermen to Mount Rainier National Park’s superintendent—argued the deal was weaker than it ought to be.

Based on the math alone, we came to the same conclusion. Our analysis found that Washington’s agreement would, at the end of the day, allow the Centralia plant to release three times more pollution than proposed regulations in Oregon would have.

To be fair, circumstances are different in the two states. One could argue that Oregon regulators had a stronger case, since the Boardman coal plant in northeast Oregon lacks some pollution controls that Centralia already has. Ultimately, Boardman owner Portland General Electric decided that investing upwards of $500 million to help a dirty coal plant meet new pollution standards wasn’t very smart. So the utility proposed to close the plant down by 2020—decades earlier than planned—and spend only $41 million on modest pollution controls in the meantime.

But here’s the interesting part: Oregon regulators last week nixed that deal on the grounds that it wasn’t strong enough. The state wants PGE to do a better job of controlling mercury and haze pollution in the 10 years before Boardman closes, and plans to present an alternative plan this week. 

It’s a gutsy move, one that could improve air quality if it forces PGE to close the coal plant earlier or reduce even more pollution until the 2020 shutdown. Or it could backfire if the utility invests so much in pollution controls that it decides to run the coal plant longer. Either way, it shows Oregon regulators are pretty tough negotiators.

By comparison, Washington’s regulatory approach has been more risk-averse, perhaps because Centralia owner TransAlta challenged the state’s authority to require more haze improvements. In several areas, the state is instead looking to negotiate voluntary agreements with TransAlta, arguing that this collaborative approach will yield quicker results than picking a fight with the coal plant.

Washington’s may be a safer strategy in one sense, but it also makes one wonder: are we using every tool at our disposal to curb pollution that poisons fish, obscures landscapes, exacerbates asthma and poses dangerous risks to children in and out of the womb?

Here’s a little more detail:

Washington’s deal requires TransAlta to cut mercury emissions by only 50 percent. Officials say initial tests suggest that new equipment being installed may do better than that, reducing emissions by as much as 70 percent over recent levels. If that proves true, the deal might actually lead to a reasonable improvement. But why not guarantee it? Why not require Centralia to be on the leading edge of efforts to cut mercury pollution rather than allowing for the possibility that the plant could fall short?

On the agreement to reduce nitrogen oxide and haze, Washington basically agreed that TransAlta’s existing pollution controls—and a switch to less polluting Powder River Basin coal after a local mine was shut down—are good enough to meet federal requirements. Unfortunately, those controls aren’t working as well as they should. But there’s disagreement about whether requiring state-of-the-art equipment to reduce NOx would be worth the cost.

On the haze agreement, the federal Environmental Protection Agency will ultimately decide whether the state’s deal is sufficient. And as Washington and Oregon seek to curb pollution from the dirtiest energy plant in each state, we will have a chance to see how the collaborate vs. regulate debate plays out in the real world.

 Mount Rainier haze photo courtesy of Flickr user Imbaker3 under a Creative Commons license.

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