From Portland to Medford, Oregon Speaks Out Against Boardman Coal Plant Pollution

Nick Engelfried

"People across Oregon, all of whom are affected by pollution from the Boardman Plant in some way, are calling on regulators to implement scientifically based pollution standards that protect our air and scenic areas"

With the conclusion of September’s Department of Environmental Quality hearings on air quality standards for PGE’s Boardman Coal Plant, the process of deciding what to do with this big polluter has inched a step closer to completion. DEQ held hearings in five communities around the state, and the result was they got to hear why Oregonians from Portland to the state’s southern reaches favor adopting the strongest possible pollution standards.

First some background. DEQ is in the process of deciding whether to stick to its June recommendation that PGE either install expensive pollution controls on the Boardman Plant—which would allow it to stay open until 2018 or 2020—or else close the plant sometime between 2015 and 2016, and avoid the need for most of those new controls.

The agency is also deciding whether to approve an alternative proposal by PGE that it be allowed to do pretty much what it wanted to do in the first place—run the coal plant until 2020 while avoiding the more costly pollution controls. Public support for the standards proposed by DEQ in June is strong, as shown in this latest round of hearings.

The hearing in Portland, on September 21st, unsurprisingly drew the largest crowd. According to my estimate, around two-thirds of the roughly 150 who showed up came to support the stronger pollution standards. As has been the case at past hearings, almost everyone speaking up for PGE’s alternate 2020 plan was either a PGE employee or representing some industry or business group with direct ties to the Boardman Plant.

Meanwhile the Sierra Club and other groups pushing for tight pollution standards were joined in Portland by a diverse group of folks from varying walks of life—including close to forty students from five Portland area colleges. At the Eugene hearing nearly everyone in a crowd of about fifty sported “Beyond Coal” T-shirts, or took to the microphone to call for pollution standards at least as tight as those already proposed by DEQ. Again the youth presence was noticeable, with about fifteen students from U of O and Lane Community College joining the Beyond Coal crowd.

I didn’t attend the other three hearings in person, but I hear a contingent of students from Southern Oregon University made their way to the hearing in Medford to urge the DEQ to stand up to PGE. I also know the good folks at Columbia Riverkeeper where recruiting some of their membership to a hearing in the Dalles.

In short, DEQ got to hear from communities across the state just why dealing with the biggest source of air pollution in Oregon is so important. I’d like to commend the agency for holding hearings throughout the state—and especially appreciate the DEQ staff who drove all over Oregon in their quest for public input.

I truly hope DEQ got the same message from these hearings that I did: people across Oregon, all of whom are affected by pollution from the Boardman Plant in some way, are calling on regulators to implement scientifically based pollution standards that protect our air and scenic areas. The draft standards proposed by DEQ in June would fulfill this obligation, and now is no time to backslide. Oregon needs the DEQ to stick up for air quality. That means standing up to PGE and rejecting the company’s alternative “2020 plan.”

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    Transparency statement: I'm a volunteer in the Oregon Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. In this post I only speak for myself.

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    Nick, My current understanding is that if PGE installs limited, but expensive, pollution controls on Boardman by 2014 or so (controls that do not reduce carbon emissions) that Boardman can stay open indefinitely (and not as you say above "allow it to stay open until 2018 or 2020").

    Am I right or not? Did something change?

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      David, the essence of what you say is correct - but the state does have authority to force the Boardman Plant to close. Originally, PGE was required to either close the coal plant in 2014 or install pollution controls (which as you say, do not address carbon dioxide). After some back-and forth between PGE and state regulators, some other options have been added to the table.

      PGE could install some but not all the pollution controls, and operate the plant until 2018 or 2020. Or it could forget about closing the plant at all, install the whole suite of controls, and operate it indefinitely (which has always been an option, though an environmentally disastrous one). Also the date by which the plant would need to be closed to avoid most new controls has been moved up from 2014 to somewhere between 2015 and 2016.

      The important thing to understand is PGE can only install new pollution controls if Oregon's Public Utilities Commission gives them the go-ahead to use ratepayer money to pay for it. If the PUC decides propping up the life of this plant a little longer isn't a good use of ratepayer money, and if the DEQ refuses to back down by accepting PGE's week "2020 plan," PGE will pretty much have to close the plant sometime around 2015, and switch to cleaner energy sources. Both the DEQ and PUC have a role to play in retiring this big polluter.

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    Thanks for the article, Nick.

    My understanding of the process is that the decision as to whether or not to close the Boardman coal plant is PGE's decision. DEQ can set emissions standards, but as long as PGE meets those standards, it can keep Boardman open as long as it likes. And PGE has yet to rule out 2040 as a date for closure.

    Of course the feds have yet to issue any regs as regards CO-2 emissions- if and when they do, DEQ would have the responsibility to see that Boardman meets those regs. But we have no idea, yet, how stringent those fed regs might be.

    Coal-fired generation is the top source of CO-2 emissions. Not only can no new coal-fired plants be built, but the existing ones must be phased out ASAP. This is our only hope to deal with climate change, as it's extremely unlikely that petroleum and/or natural gas usage will be phased out in the forseeable future. All we can do as regards those fuels is conserve as best we can.

    If a politician or industry leader tells you that they are in agreement with a new coal-fired plant being built, anywhere, ask that pol how he or she plans to convince Saudi Arabia and Russia to keep their petroleum in the ground?

    All the so-called "binding" agreements- Kyoto and the like, are essentially meaningless as regards trying to solve this most serious of threats. The theoretical slow-diminishment of emissions will not solve it, at all.

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    I don't understand how a new generation of out-of-state anti-coal activists have suddenly decided that PGE is Halliburton on steroids. Let's start treating them like the forward-thinking, long-ahead-of-the-efficiency-and-environmental-curve company they are.

    Doesn't anyone remember this?

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      Hi Andrew,

      I've actually lived almost my entire life in Oregon - I grew up and went to college here. As to why PGE's coal plant has suddenly become such a problem, a lot of it has to do with a thing called global warming. Over the past couple decades the problem has been getting worse and worse, and big utilities like PGE have been doing precious little about it. Now we're almost out of time, and the Boardman Plant is the biggest contributor to the problem in Oregon.

      I also don't consider PGE ahead of the curve when it comes to environmental issues. Sure they've made some investments in renewables, but they're required to do that under the Oregon Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard. Meanwhile operating the Boardman Plant until 2020 or longer (which PGE wants to do) will make it difficult or impossible to achieve the state's climate goals. In this respect, PGE is actually holding Oregon back.

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    Andrew Plambeck,

    Yesterday the federal EPA issued a statement saying the "ahead-of-the-environmental-curve" utility, Portland General Electric, has been operating Boardman in violation of the Clean Air Act since 1998.

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