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Will Oregon Close the State's Only Coal-Fired Power Plant?

While outsiders may think of Oregon as a green utopia, it's undoubtedly not that groovy when it comes to the issue of coal.

Polar ice caps are melting, sea levels are rising and the number of fatal hurricanes may be increasing.

The culprit? That big, malevolent unknown we call global warming. It's out there, the scientists warn, somewhere, and it is destroying our little blue planet with every last bit of CO2 we discharge into the atmosphere.

So we purchase energy-efficient appliances, turn off our lights when we exit the room, drive our vehicles less frequently and shop at our local farmers markets. Even so, the struggle to put the breaks on climate change seems like a fruitless venture.

Not so say activists in Oregon who are attempting to chain and lock the doors of the state's sole coal-fired power plant. Located along the scenic Columbia River Gorge in eastern Oregon, the Boardman Power Plant is owned and operated by Portland General Electric and supplies enough power to support the energy consumption of approximately 280,000 homes.

The Boardman coal-fired plant is the single largest and most polluting site in Oregon, and citizens here have affixed their bull's-eye smack dab on its soaring smoke stacks.

While outsiders may think of Oregon as a green utopia, with its environmentally friendly urban populace and New Age ambiance, it's undoubtedly not that groovy when it comes to the issue of coal.

Over 40 percent of the state's energy comes from the burning of this precious black rock, half of which is pumped out of the Boardman Power Plant each year. No coal-mining operations exist in the state, so all of the coal set ablaze in Boardman is dug up and transported from places like the majestic Powder River Basin, which straddles the high-plains border of northern Wyoming and southeastern Montana.

In recent years, studies have shown that the Boardman plant contributes to regional haze and visibility impairment in the Columbia River Gorge, a national scenic area, as well as 14 national parks and wilderness areas in Washington and Oregon.

The U.S. Forest Service has even demonstrated that Boardman contributes to acid fog and rain in the Columbia Gorge.

Leading the legal charge to end the practice of coal burning in Oregon are the Sierra Club, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, Columbia Riverkeeper and two other environmental groups that recently sued PGE for allegedly violating the Clean Air Act.

Back in the mid-1970s, when Boardman was being constructed, PGE allowed the plant to be erected without appropriate pollution controls having to be in place, which were required by Clean Air standards at the time.

PGE challenged the suit, arguing that the EPA, which was then in charge of energy permitting in Oregon, had allowed the building to proceed because the laws dictating pollution regulations were not around when construction started.

However, PGE's request for dismissal of the environmental group's lawsuit was rejected by U.S. District Judge Ancer L. Haggerty, who stated in his opinion that the EPA allowed the Boardman plant to proceed in its development "with an understanding that the plant would be subject" to the Clean Air Act regulations.

"At a time when Oregonians are calling on PGE to move away from its dependence on dirty coal-fired power, we are heartened that the federal court recognizes that PGE's dirty plant should be held accountable for years of illegal pollution," says Robin Everett of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign. The Oregon Sierra Club gave more than 1,500 petitions to PGE from Oregonians who support shutting down the power plant.

The Boardman facility began to spew its toxins in 1980, a full five years after the Clean Air Act went into effect. And those pollutants are aplenty: carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, particulate matter and even mercury, which is unregulated and unmonitored.

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