The petition was filed with the U.S. EPA on November 2 by Earthjustice on behalf of Sierra Club, National Parks Conservation Association, and Northwest Environmental Defense Center.
They filed the petition because on September 17 Southwest Washington Clean Air Agency renewed Canadian-based TransAlta's permit for the Centralia power plant, a move the petitioners say ignores state and federal clean air laws.
The TransAlta plant is Washington state's only commercial coal-burning power plant.
When TransAlta bought the plant in 2000, it agreed to reduce emissions and installed US$200 million worth of scrubbers. The company now calls it "one of the cleanest coal-fired generation facilities in North America."
The TransAlta power plant in Centralia, Washington (Photo by Robert Ashworth)
But the petitioners complain that the renewed permit contains no emissions limits for mercury or greenhouse gases and fails to require the best controls for haze-pollution over Mount Rainier, Olympic and North Cascades National Parks, as well as Goat Rocks Wilderness and many other forest, wilderness and recreational areas throughout the region.
Federal law requires these areas to have the cleanest, best-protected air quality, yet the National Park Service estimates that the TransAlta plant cumulatively pollutes the air in more parks and wilderness areas than any other polluter in the United States.
"Southwest Clean Air has failed to protect Washington and the region's residents from air pollution that is harming our children, contaminating our national parks, and warming and damaging our climate, said Janette Brimmer, an attorney with Earthjustice, the public interest law firm representing the conservation and energy groups. "EPA intervention is necessary to provide adequate control of harmful pollutants."
This is the not the groups' first action to try and block the permit. On September 28, conservation and energy groups filed an appeal of the air pollution permit.
The appeal alleges that the Southwest Washington Clean Air Agency has violated federal and state clean air laws and seeks to include controls for toxic mercury, haze and global warming pollutants in a revised permit.
"It is unacceptable for the Southwest Clean Air Agency and TransAlta to treat this permit renewal as a ministerial exercise," said Brimmer.
"The state can and should do better to protect Washington's majestic national parks and the region's residents from the harms caused by this major polluter, said Sean Smith, policy director for the National Parks Conservation Association. "Given the host of pollution control, efficiency, and alternative energy options, there is no excuse for the agency and state to allow these amounts of damaging emissions."
The EPA recently released a draft finding that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases "threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations."
In addition, earlier this year, Washington Governor Chris Gregoire found carbon dioxide to be an "air contaminant" that is endangering public health and welfare.
The TransAlta coal-fired plant is the state's biggest single polluter, contributing 10 percent of the climate-warming emissions released in Washington.
"There is no excuse for the agency to allow these amounts of damaging emissions from this old coal-fired plant," said Smith. "EPA must step in to protect Washington's majestic national parks and the region's residents from this major polluter."
Under state and federal clean air laws, the Southwest Clean Air Agency must review and renew with any necessary modifications the aging coal plant's air permit at least once every five years to ensure compliance with air pollution laws and to ensure that the latest pollution control standards are met.
The conservation groups asked EPA to block the renewed permit because it fails to incorporate the terms of a recent agreement between TransAlta and the Washington Department of Ecology.
The groups challenging the permit are concerned that the TransAlta/Ecology agreement is inadequate to reduce the pollutants of concern as it has only voluntary commitments on mercury and does not require the best available controls for nitrogen oxides. The TransAlta/Ecology agreement is currently on a separate track from the permit renewal process.
The TransAlta coal plant needs to move into the 21st century by reducing toxic mercury pollution by 90 percent with already-available and in-use technologies," said Mark Riskedahl, executive director of the Northwest Environmental Defense Center. "TransAlta also needs to lead the way on rapidly reducing Washington's contribution to global warming by adopting strict limits for its climate-warming emissions."
"In Washington state, TransAlta, as the number one source of global warming, mercury and haze pollution, has had a free ride for too long," said Doug Howell, senior representative for the Sierra Club's Coal-Free Northwest campaign. "This old, filthy coal-fired plant must be seen for what it is and now is the time to hold the coal plant accountable to fulfill its obligations to address known pollutants to protect our health, environment, and economy."
At one time, 70 percent of the subbituminous coal used by the plant was delivered by truck from the nearby Centralia Coal Mine, which was a strip mine and the largest coal mine in the state of Washington, until it closed down on November 27, 2006. Currently, the coal is delivered by rail from the Powder River Basin.
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