Friday, October 16, 2009

Trans-Alta and Ecology Reach Proposed Mediation Agreement on Mercury and Nitrogen Oxide Emissions

Above: Acting Superintendent of Mount Rainier National Park Randy King speaks with Jim Wilcox of Trout Unlimited, after the public hearing last Tuesday evening in Olympia.

The Washington State Department of Ecology held a public hearing last Tuesday night in Olympia about the new proposed agreement between Ecology and Centralia’s Trans-Alta coal-fired plant to reduce Trans-Alta’s mercury and nitrogen oxide emissions. Ecology air quality staff Sarah Rees and Alan Newman were on hand at the public hearing to explain the agreement process thus far and hear public testimony.

Several concerned citizens and representatives of various organizations gathered to comment on the agreement. Public comment will continue to be taken until November 9.

Trans-Alta, which began operating in 1971, is the state’s only coal-fired power plant, and provides enough power for one out of every 12 homes and businesses in Washington State.

The state recently renewed Trans-Alta’s operations contract for an additional five years. A report on the operational permit negotiations was recently heard in a work session of the Washington State Senate’s Environment, Water & Energy Committee in early October. TransAlta materials, distributed to members, highlight Trans-Alta's “sustainability in action” plan and touts its recent investment in a $300 million “flex-fuel” equipment upgrade to reduce its sulphur and nitrogen oxide emissions. The plant also achieved a goal of recycling 50 million gallons of wastewater.

According to the agreement between Ecology and Trans-Alta, the Canadian-owned corporation will voluntarily reduce its emissions, self-report its progress, and reduce its emissions by 50% by 2012. The agreement does not address Trans-Alta’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Several environmental organizations and agencies have criticized the agreement, saying it lacks teeth because it is voluntary and doesn’t go far enough to curb emissions. Trans-Alta is known to be the largest source of mercury pollution and haze-causing nitrogen oxide pollutants in the state, accounting for a full 10% of the state’s global warming causing carbon dioxide emissions.

Organizations such as the Sierra Club say the negotiations were flawed from the start by not including the public earlier in the process. State mediation with Ecology began in 2007.

Several people took advantage of the opportunity to ask staff questions and receive answers prior to the beginning of the public hearing.

Students from The Evergreen State College spoke to the very nature of mercury emissions into the atmosphere. Adam Fleischmann commented that the mercury here in the Northwest comes from Asia, and Trans-Alta contributes to mercury emissions that go to Asia. “Mercury is a bioaccumulative. It strikes me as immoral to put our mercury on someone else.”

Student Maya Face said that Ecology wasn’t doing everything it possibly could to lower emissions, saying “any level is unacceptable." She asked Ecology staff why emissions could not be eliminated altogether. Rees replied, “That would require the facility to shut down altogether and that’s not where we were going with this agreement.”

Above: Washington State Department of Ecology staff member Elena Gilfoil, back to camera, talks with student Maya Face and Adam Fleischmann after the public hearing.

Jim Wilcox, president of the Olympia chapter of Trout Unlimited, agreed with Fleischmann and commented, “Are we not good neighbors in Washington?”

Mark Quinn of the Washington Wildlife Federation, advocated for a clean energy economy, calling coal “the dirtiest source of energy on the planet. Coal filters groundwater. It should stay there.”

Donna Albert of Montesano, a civil engineer, was the first to present testimony, but broke down in tears when she started reading the names of her four grandchildren, citing them as the reason why she was there. Ecology public hearing facilitator Jerry Thielen acknowledged that this was an emotional issue for many people. She completed her testimony later, saying, “we must stop burning coal…coal free energy is possible now.”

Doug Howell of the Sierra Club expressed frustration about the public process, saying he could not get Ecology to even put a phone into the room during the public hearing so people could call in with their concerns.

Randy King, Acting Supervisor of Mount Rainier National Park, testified in uniform and took issue with the description of Trans-Alta using the “best available retrofit technology” (BART) to reduce emissions.

Although Ecology and Trans-Alta agree that Trans-Alta is using the best available retrofit technology, this point is in dispute. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has the final say over state plans and whether or not a proposed technology meets BART standards, has stated that Trans-Alta’s nitrogen oxide burners do not meet BART requirements.

In strongly worded testimony, King said he was also testifying for the superintendents of the Olympic National Park and the North Cascades National Park and expressed concern that the agreement was negotiated without the participation of federal land managers.

Above: Autumn colors of the Cascades in September.

King questioned whether or not the process met the requirements and spirit of the federal Clean Air Act. “…The proposed (agreement) does not require the best technology to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide (which is) a key component of visibility impairment at the parks…. King suggested that a selective catalytic reduction technology is the preferred method to improve visibility.

“…A reduction of nitrogen oxides would lead to a direct improvement in visibility at Mount Rainier National Park, as well as contribute to…decreased health effects from fine particulate matter region-wide….(as) we are also concerned with mercury deposition…throughout the region,” said King.

While King made clear that the National Park Service is not asking Trans-Alta to close its plant, he did emphasize that it requests that the Department of Ecology take a “strong leadership role.”

According to King, over 1.1 million people visited Mount Rainier National Park in 2008, creating extensive economic benefits totaling in the millions, throughout the region. Mount Rainier National Park is 50 miles away from the Trans-Alta plant.

Above: Aerial of Mt. Rainier.

“National parks and wilderness areas not only guard the national and cultural assets of our Nation, but they are also our most sensitive gauges of environmental stewardship. Harm to these resources that our nation strives hardest to protect must signal an alarm for other resources and for us,” King concluded.

For more information, or to comment on the proposed agreement, contact Sarah Rees of the Washington State Department of Ecology, Air Quality Program at (360) 407-6823, or see more information at

The Sierra Club also has a new website to address the coal-fired energy plant issue at