State's secret deal with coal plant sparks outcry
Gov. Chris Gregoire's administration and owners of the state's only coal-fired power plant have secretly agreed to new air-pollution limits for the facility, sparking objections from a federal official and environmentalists. The tentative deal governs how much toxic mercury and smog-causing nitrogen oxides can come from the Centralia plant.
Seattle Times environment reporter
Gov. Chris Gregoire's administration and owners of the state's only coal-fired power plant have secretly agreed to new air-pollution limits for the facility, sparking objections from a federal official and environmentalists.
The tentative deal, reached in closed-door talks between Canada-based TransAlta and officials from the Governor's Office and the state Ecology Department, governs how much toxic mercury and smog-causing nitrogen oxides can puff from the massive 470-foot smokestack at the Centralia plant.
The confidential deal-making is an unusual approach to regulations usually crafted through a public process that makes more documents and agency deliberations open for public scrutiny.
The result, say critics, is a deal brokered out of public view that demands too little of the power plant, allowing it to continue adding smog that obscures some of the region's most treasured views, including Mount Rainier.
"We have some major concerns about this," said the National Park Service's Don Shepherd, who reviews regulations for factories that pollute air near national parks.
The public will have a chance to weigh in at a yet-to-be-scheduled public hearing, which the governor demanded before any deal is signed, said Keith Phillips, her environmental-policy adviser.
Phillips said the governor decided to pursue the closed-door talks in late 2007 because a confluence of events raised questions about the coal plant's future.
TransAlta had shut its neighboring coal mine, throwing hundreds out of work. The plant faced new air-pollution regulations. And a push to cut global-warming pollution triggered interest in what could be done at the plant, the state's biggest single source of greenhouse gases.
The final result, he said, is that TransAlta has promised to reduce nitrogen-oxide pollution by using cleaner-burning coal from the Rocky Mountains, and will voluntarily cut mercury emissions in half by 2012.
"Getting a voluntary 50 percent reduction in mercury in the near term from the plant wasn't anything that we wanted to pass up," Phillips said.
The deal gives TransAlta more certainty about its future, while cutting pollution, said company spokeswoman Marcy McAuley. The agreement is "something that works for government, works for Washington citizens and works for TransAlta," McAuley said.
But environmentalists question how much the state really got. TransAlta had already said it would use the cleaner coal when it closed its Centralia mine. Other states are forcing power plants to catch 90 percent of their mercury.
"I think the state got snookered," said Janette Brimmer, an attorney with the environmental-law group Earthjustice.
At the National Park Service, Shepherd said costly equipment used at new power plants could be installed at Centralia to further cut smog-causing nitrogen oxide. "As proposed, the TransAlta plant would continue to cause the greatest visibility impact on our national parks and wilderness areas of any coal-fired power plant across the United States," he said.
The state didn't push for that extra equipment because the cost outweighed the benefits, said Sarah Rees, a manager of Ecology's air program.
Because the deal was reached under confidential mediation, the state says it will shield a number of documents that would normally be made public.
Rees declined to release a draft of the agreement, saying it was still confidential. Messages between TransAlta and the state during the mediation would also be shielded, unless all parties agreed to their release, said Laura Watson, an assistant state attorney general.
Phillips, in the Governor's Office, said there will be a public hearing about the whole agreement, although state law would require it only for the nitrogen-oxide issue: "We don't make decisions in private without the public getting a chance to comment.".
The approach to reducing nitrogen oxide requires approval of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
But environmentalists said public comment now appeared to be a last-minute gesture on a done deal.
"I can't believe they totally shut the public out of the process. I know it's burdensome and time-consuming, but it's important," said Mark Riskedahl, head of the Northwest Environmental Defense Center in Portland.
Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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