Environment

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.

These substances have been linked to very serious health effects, such as cancer, birth abnormalities, heart and respiratory problems, along with developmental disorders. Mercury alone is responsible for 41 percent of industrial releases in the U.S. annually, and each year 322,000 children born in the U.S. face potential neurological damage because their mothers' mercury levels register in the danger zone.

"Shutting down coal plants saves lives -- immediately. This is not about our grandchildren. It's about the here and now," says Ted Nace, director of CoalSwarm, an environmental project of the Earth Island Institute* that seeks to shut down coal plants in the U.S. "For example, particulates from power plants alone are killing 24,000 people each year in the United States -- that's 240,000 lives lost per decade due to this moribund industry."

While debris from coal-fired power plants may be killing tens of thousands of people every year, the smoke that billows from these structures are also the primary source of that great global warming menace, CO2.

James Hansen, who serves as the director of NASA's Institute for Space Studies, argues that the U.S. should phase out all coal-fired power plants by 2030. Indeed, the coal plant fleet in our country is old, with over half being built before 1965.

Picking up the activists' torch in Portland is the city's Mayor Sam Adams. In a letter to PGE President and CEO Jim Piro, Adams commented on the company's draft Integrated Resource Plan, which will guide PGE's work over the coming decades:

It is striking to me that the draft IRP shows the share of PGE's electricity from coal actually increasing over time, from 24 percent in 2010 to 25 percent in 2015. ... I strongly urge you to evaluate phasing out Boardman and the procurement of coal-produced electricity by 2020 at the latest.

PGE's proposed energy plan is controversial to say the least. It includes two new gas-fired power plants and over $500 million worth of pollution-reduction upgrades for the Boardman facility. Environmentalists say this money would be better spent if it was invested in renewable-energy sources. In late September, concerned citizens stormed a public hearing on PGE's plan, and they voiced numerous objections.

"It would normally be very difficult to justify shutting down a coal plant," Steve Weiss, a policy analyst with the NW Energy Coalition, told the Oregonian after the meeting. "But when you're talking about having to put a half-billion into it, it changes the equation. If they go forward and put all this money into the plant, they'll never close it down, and if they're forced to, it will cause a huge economic hardship."

If advocates and concerned citizens are to be successful in closing down Boardman, local coalitions will have to be strengthened, as they will likely face legitimate hurdles. Jobs and revenue will initially be lost. Plus, the energy Boardman produces will have to be replaced by another, perhaps more costly supply.

The bright side is that Oregon already is the third-largest renewable-energy producer in the country, although that ranking includes the destructive, hydroelectric power generated by salmon-killing dams up and down the Columbia River.

Energy alternatives, if Boardman closes, will likely include wind, solar and perhaps more risky sources like nuclear energy and natural gas. In 1980, Oregonians banned the construction of new nuclear plants in the state, but nuclear power imports from out-of-state are not illegal.

If Boardman closes, the energy lost will have to be replaced with something else. That debate will come to a head once the plant is ultimately slated for decommissioning. Nonetheless, shuttering Boardman, say advocates, is the first step in moving the process forward.

"The average coal plant worker is 48; the average West Virginia mine worker is 55. With transitions planned well in advance, normal retirement can take care of some of the employment problem, and alternative power projects can take care of the rest," notes Coalswarm's Nace. "In any case, no plant should be shut down unless the employees have a guaranteed jobs future. Local plants are always protected by local politicians, but there are models for how the entrenched interests can be dealt with."

Activists in Oregon don't seem to be pinning their hopes on any national legislation to help curb the effects of climate change, and they don't believe the myth that coal can be clean; they are working diligently to pressure PGE to abandon its Boardman pollution-reduction upgrades.

The climate movement, like other environmental actions, seems to be most effective when it attacks on multiple fronts. Local campaigns bring the issue home, which is something the national campaigns simply cannot do with the same impact.

"To allow PGE to make an ongoing investment in fossil-fuel generating resources begs the question of what happens if we continue to confront the tipping points of climate change that are lining up in its path?" Lloyd Marbet, executive director of the Oregon Conservancy Foundation, writes in a letter to PGE. "Will PGE be allowed to make this investment and then expect to be publicly bailed out, with taxpayer dollars, if the future it paints fails to unfold and the requirement is imposed in a crisis to shut these generating plants down or severely curtail their operation?"

The Bush administration's quest to construct over 150 new coal plants is stuck in the mud and does not seem to be moving forward. However, there are still 600 coal plants in the U.S., and these facilities ought to be targeted directly if we are to successfully confront global warming head on.

In March, over 2,500 activists, with many willing to risk arrest, blockaded the entrances of the Capitol Power Plant in Washington, D.C., and their civil disobedience was successful; the 99-year-old plant no longer burns coal.

Time will tell if folks in Oregon triumph like those who stormed Washington last spring. But as awareness is raised about the negative impacts of the Boardman coal-fired power plant, more people will join in the quest to reshape the way energy is produced and used in the Northwest while simultaneously addressing global warming.

"This is a historic turning point for our country, and Oregon can lead the way," adds Cesia Kerns of the Oregon Sierra Club. "[We] should be proud and inspired by the notion that our state could lead the country in freeing ourselves from coal and building a new, clean energy economy -- but it will require citizens to raise their voices in favor of alternatives to Boardman, and pressure Portland General Electric to do the right thing by phasing out Boardman by 2014."
 

*This writer has worked as a reporter for the Earth Island Institute.

Joshua Frank is the author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Re-elect George W. Bush and edits Brick Burner.