Budget overshadows environment in Olympia
Boxcars filled with coal for the TransAlta coal-fired electrical plant wait on railroad tracks outside Centralia. The Washington Legislature on Thursday gave final approval to a bill that will phase out operation of the state’s only coal-fired plant by 20
Deep recessions and multi-billion-dollar budget deficits usually aren’t good news for Mother Earth.
That’s the situation in Olympia this year, where conservation groups have set modest goals, hoping to pass a few environmental bills and hold onto precious budget dollars dedicated to protecting the state’s land, water and air.
The biggest environmental win of the 2011 Legislature happened Thursday, on the eve of Earth Day, when a bill that will phase out operation of the state’s only coal-fired electrical plant by 2025 cleared its final legislative hurdle and headed for Gov. Chris Gregoire’s desk.
The measure requires Canadian company TransAlta to phase out its 1,460-megawatt Centralia coal plant in stages between 2020 and 2025. Supporters say the timeline allows for an orderly transition for plant workers and the local community and provides an opportunity to replace power from the Northwest’s largest coal-fired plant with energy efficient and clean resources such as wind and solar.
“This is a win-win-win for our health, the environment, our economy and the Lewis County community,” said Doug Howell, director of the Coal-Free Future for Washington campaign. “This legislation — the result of environmentalists, labor unions, health experts, faith leaders, the local community, the corporation, the governor and legislators all working together — will drastically reduce the harm to human health and our environment from coal pollution.”
It was good news for conservationists, though they had hoped to win a phase-out of coal by 2020. And it may help restore the state’s tarnished image as a national leader in addressing climate change.
The political climate was different in 2007, when Gregoire announced a strategy to reduce Washington’s greenhouse gas emissions in stages beginning in 2020. Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, introduced the first cap-and-trade bill in the Legislature that year, two weeks after the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared that evidence of global warming was now “unequivocal” and that human activity, primarily the burning of fossil fuels, was a major cause.
In February, the Department of Ecology announced that it won’t meet its first state-mandated target, to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. The main reason, the agency said, is the collapse of both regional and national efforts to establish a cap-and-trade system mandating reductions of greenhouse gases by major polluting industries.
“I think that the state’s progress needs to be put in the context of the national situation, where we have been outspent and outmaneuvered by the coal and oil industries to set back our progress,” said Kathleen Ridihalgh of the Sierra Club.
The timeline for a phaseout of the TransAlta plant, the state’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, “will bring us closer to where we hope to be,” she said. “It’s one significant step,” she said, but there’s much more work to be done, especially in the transportation sector, where the goals of increasing mass transit use, promoting clean-fuel cars and reducing vehicle miles traveled touch on the individual day-to-day decisions of Washington residents.
“We’re demonstrating that it is possible to move away from fossil fuels to clean energy in a way that is good for everyone,” said Eric de Place of the Sightline Institute, a progressive Seattle think tank. But there’s a “somewhat alarming postscript,” he said — active proposals to establish coal export facilities in Longview and Blaine that would send huge volumes of coal to China.
“If we ship 50 million tons of coal to China, that’s roughly 10 times as much coal as is burned at Centralia,” de Place said. “It would be terrific if the governor would say something definitive about Washington’s role in the global coal economy. My biggest disappointment is that the state has failed to take a really serious and comprehensive approach to climate change in general. … What Washington lacks is strong political leadership on climate policy.”
This year, lawmakers in Olympia, preoccupied with cutting more than $5 billion from the 2011-13 state budget, have had little time to focus on environmental issues.
“Everything was overshadowed by the budget,” Ridihalgh said.
Yet there have been wins along with the losses.
Of four top legislative priorities set by a coalition of environmental groups this year, two — the TransAlta initiative and a measure to ban the use of phosphate fertilizers on golf course greens and lawns — succeeded.
Last week, the governor signed a bill banning the use of “turf builder” fertilizers on those manicured landscapes. The ban applies only to “mature lands,” said Neil Beaver of the Lands Council in Spokane, who lobbied for the measure. “Healthy mature lawns have plenty of phosphorus. New plants require phosphorus to produce fruits and vegetables. Farmers and gardeners can continue to purchase the product as before.”
Nonetheless, the measure “was opposed by nearly every agriculture organization, even though farmers were completely exempt,” Beaver said, as well as by a handful of golf course managers. The manufacturer of Scott’s Turf Builder supported the bill, he said, “because they are phasing the product out by 2012, anyway.”
Excess phosphorus runs off lawns into streams, where it can trigger algae blooms and damage fish habitat. When Michigan passed a similar measure, Beaver said, it saw a 28 percent reduction in phosphorus runoff.
Another success story happened Thursday, when the Legislature enacted a first-in-the-nation ban on toxic coal tar sealants. When applied to pavement, these sealants, which contain high levels of suspected carcinogens, leave a residue that is responsible for polluting stormwater runoff and contaminating lakes and waterways.
Bird-dogging the budget
One goal that is still a work in progress is to make sure core environmental protections already in place — “programs that protect the health of our air and water and make sure that our toxic sites are cleaned up,” said Kerry McHugh of the Washington Environmental Council — are adequately funded in the next two-year budget cycle.
“We were really pleased that the Legislature maintained the Model Toxics Control Act,” McHugh said. “It funds environmental cleanup projects across the state for contaminated projects. It also creates jobs.”
Over the past few years, about $250 million has been diverted from the fund and used for other purposes, she said. “But no money was taken out this year, and that’s a good thing. We know the legislature had a really challenging budget, and to a degree they did the best they could with targeted cuts. The problem is, environmental protections have been cut so far that any future cuts push things to the breaking point.”
With agency budgets cut to the bone, conservationists also are concerned that proposals to fund programs like forest practices enforcement with new fees will result in less enforcement.
“What industry is saying is, ‘We’ll pay more fees, but that means protections need to be rolled back,” McHugh said. “We can’t support fees that reduce protection. But if the fee bills don’t pass, that means there will be fewer people on the ground making sure logging operations are carried out in a safe way.”
Conservationists are prepared to accept deep cuts in the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program, which pays for grants to help local governments buy land valuable for wildlife habitat and recreation. In the past, the popular program has been funded at $100 million per biennium. This year the House budget allocates $50 million, the Senate just $20 million. Those numbers will have to be reconciled in the Legislature’s special session.
Maybe next year
Other bills failed to make it out of the Legislature by the deadline for policy bills. They include:
• A children’s safe products bill that would have required Washington manufacturers to look for safer chemicals to use in toys and other children’s products.
Earlier legislation banned the use of lead, cadmium and plastic softening agents called phthalates, Laurie Valeriano of the Washington Toxics Coalition said. But the Department of Ecology has identified a list of additional chemicals that also are potentially hazardous to children, including formaldehyde and certain solvents and flame retardants.
“This was a very rational next step in the process of moving companies toward safer alternatives,” Valeriano said. “Obviously, it was hugely challenging because of the budget occupying a huge amount of time. And with this issue, a lot of new members needed a lot of education. People needed more time to figure it out.”
• A Clean Water Jobs Act, which proposed to address toxic stormwater runoff into rivers, lakes and coastal waters and create jobs by imposing a new fee on hazardous substances to pay for stormwater control facilities. Oil refineries, which would have been most affected by the fee, lobbied against it.
McHugh said the bill’s failure was not a total defeat. “The House included $46 million and the Senate included $50 million for toxic stormwater runoff,” she said. “Our bill would have raised $100 million from a new fee.”
“We think that to really address clean water issues, we need a sustained and significant new funding source,” she added. “Right now, there is just not the money to address the scale of the problem.”