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Originally published May 21, 2010 at 3:18 PM | Page modified May 21, 2010 at 5:16 PM

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Guest columnist

Time for Washington state to move beyond coal

While discussions go on about whether to continue to operate Washington's only coal plant in Centralia, guest columnist Ted Nace argues that it is time for the state to move beyond coal.

Special to The Times

THE recent explosion that killed 29 miners in West Virginia reminds us that coal remains an American tragedy, but for residents of Washington state that tragedy may seem safely distant.

Not so. The continuing dominance of Big Coal as a supplier of U.S. electricity affects us all, from the safety of our food to the balance in our checkbooks.

Let's start with dollars and cents. While coal supplies nearly half of U.S. electricity, that electricity can't be considered cheap if one includes the $62 billion it causes in health effects such as premature heart attacks, as reported in a 2009 assessment by the National Research Council. Those damages amount to a tax of $200 on every American via elevated health-insurance premiums and Medicare costs.

Even our food is affected, since coal-fired power plants are the leading industrial source of mercury, which accumulates in the food chain, especially in the fish we eat, and produces neurological risks for as many as 16 percent of newborns, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Thankfully, many utilities are kicking the coal habit. Warren Buffett's PacifiCorp, for example, recently canceled all six of its pending coal plants, opting instead for a mix of wind and other clean power sources.

Strangely, leaders in Washington state don't seem to have gotten the message. Even as wind power surpasses coal across the nation in job creation (85,000 jobs in wind power, 83,000 in coal mining, according to the American Wind Power Association's figures for 2008), the state continues to subsidize the Canadian company that operates the massive Centralia Power Plant, and there is active discussion of keeping the plant operating until 2025.

Many residents of Washington state haven't even heard of the Centralia plant, which is the dirtiest polluter in the state: No. 1 in greenhouse gases, mercury and haze. Like most coal plants across the United States, it's an aging facility whose two units were constructed in 1972 and 1973. Trans-Alta, the plant's Canadian owner, gets millions in state tax exemptions. Much of the power goes to California. The profits go to Canada. While Washington state gets some jobs, study after study shows that cleaner energy sources would produce a greater number of jobs.

Keeping Big Coal happy with tax favors is not what I was expecting from one of the greenest states in the nation. Having chronicled fights against Big Coal across the country, I recently came to Washington to participate in four days of town-hall meetings, sharing what I have learned from battles elsewhere. I was delighted to meet well-informed students, labor unionists, health professionals, clergy, state senators and activists of all ages in Seattle, Redmond, Bainbridge and Vancouver. As in other states, citizens in Washington are determined to move beyond dirty coal.

Here's the problem: Wind and other clean sources of electricity can't gain market share if old coal plants never get retired. That means Washington is at a crossroads. By prolonging the life of the TransAlta coal plant in Centralia, policymakers run the risk of slowing our recovering economy's momentum toward cleaner, safer alternatives. The state can continue to subsidize TransAlta or it can redirect those subsidies to transition the workers to more-sustainable careers.

By closing the TransAlta plant, Washington can become the first coal-free state by 2015. Such action would provide a powerful example. It's the sort of leadership we need to realize the clean-energy future our children deserve.

Ted Nace is the author of "Climate Hope: On the Front Lines of the Fight Against Coal." He lives in San Francisco.

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