Kick Coal, Save Jobs Right Now

In Washington State, a blue-green alliance helps phase out dirty energy

By Scott Martelle

January 30, 2012

Bob Guenther, president of Centralia's Central Labor Council: Without a smooth transition for plant workers, 'we'd have been fighting that to the nth degree.'

Bob Guenther, president of Centralia's Central Labor Council: Without a smooth transition for plant workers, 'we'd have been fighting that to the nth degree.' | Photos by Nick Hall

ON A BEAUTIFUL DAY LAST APRIL, some 300 people filtered into the shade of a large white party tent in the parking lot of TransAlta's Centralia coal plant. A gentle breeze carried the smell of catered barbecue and snatches of congratulatory speeches by an array of former adversaries. They were celebrating what two months earlier few would have thought possible: the agreement to shutter Washington State's largest single source of mercury and climate-changing pollutants and one of the Pacific Northwest's two remaining coal-fired power plants.

"It was quite an event to be standing there next to TransAlta's PR woman, who had been my mortal enemy for months, and we're just smiling and going, 'Wow, look at this. This is crazy,'" says Craig Benjamin, communications director for Washington's Environmental Priorities Coalition, which was seeking the plant's closure. "Everyone has their own story of why this is great. Labor has its story. The company has its story. And we have our story."

Centralia's store-lined downtown is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Centralia's store-lined downtown is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The amicable settlement to what had been an acrimonious fight over the future of coal burning in the Pacific Northwest was more than a victory for the environment and Washington residents. According to those involved, it could well provide a template for future efforts to retire coal plants nationwide.

Crucial to the agreement was a strategic decision by Sierra Club negotiators to advocate not just for the environment but also for the livelihood of plant workers and for Centralia itself, a picturesque former logging town of 16,400 people midway between Seattle and Portland. The two-stage shutdown of the 1,340-megawatt plant, with one boiler going off-line in 2020 and the other in 2025, offers a lengthy transition opportunity for its 250 employees—40 percent of whom will reach retirement age before the plant shuts down, according to a union official. The rest have, in effect, at least eight years' notice that they might lose their jobs. The deal also includes a $55 million contribution by TransAlta to help the region diversify its job base: $30 million for a community investment fund for energy-efficiency projects and $25 million to support innovative energy technologies.

"No jobs around here pay more than $10 an hour."

This unlikely compromise grew out of talks among the Sierra Club and two dozen other environmental groups, public health advocates, religious leaders, state political figures, TransAlta executives, and officials from the union representing most of the plant workers. "It would not have happened without the coalition," says Doug Howell, a Sierra Club senior campaign representative in Seattle. He credits in particular the Earth Ministry, which brought in pastors to talk to legislators about the coal plant's broad environmental impact.

Most important, the public will end up with a cleaner environment. Currently, Centralia produces 10.5 million tons of carbon dioxide annually (equal to the amount emitted by 1.8 million cars), as well as 354 pounds of mercury and 10,000 tons of nitrogen oxide, which has been linked to diminished visibility at nearby Mt. Rainier National Park. The Sierra Club initially sought to shut down the plant by 2015, but the senior director of the Club's Beyond Coal campaign, Bruce Nilles, says the delay may turn out to be a blessing. TransAlta has proposed replacing the Centralia plant with a natural gas-fired plant, but environmentalists and the state's clean-energy developers hope there will now be time to line up renewable sources like solar or wind from the new wind farms that are sprouting in the high desert east of the Cascades.

Even with the TransAlta plant in operation, unemployment in Centralia is almost 15 percent.
Even with the TransAlta plant in operation, unemployment in Centralia is almost 15 percent.

"The Pacific Northwest has an abundance of clean-energy options," Nilles says. "Our work isn't done. We need the right replacement power, and now we have time."

From TransAlta's perspective, the agreement gives the company a chance to recoup the $300 million it has spent on smokestack scrubbers and other environmental upgrades. It does so by allowing the company to enter into long-term contracts with in-state utilities, an arrangement state law had previously prohibited. (As of October, however, no Washington utility had signed up.) TransAlta is also obligated to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions from the plant in 2013.

Labor also got a win. "I really felt decent about the fact that we were able to come together," says Bob Guenther, a former TransAlta worker who's now president of Centralia's Central Labor Council and a lobbyist for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). "Everybody had to give."

The agreement was a remarkable turnaround for both the company and the union. Guenther, in fact, had testified with TransAlta and community leaders at a legislative hearing last February, urging that the plant be kept open. Six weeks later, he lined up with TransAlta to accept the shutdown.

"When we saw that a smooth transition was on the table and that we were going to keep this community healthy, we saw that as an opportunity to make this happen," Guenther says. Without that transition guarantee, he admits, "we'd have been fighting that to the nth degree."

"We learned early on we've got to take care of the community."

Local enviros and labor first began working together at the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting and protests, says Kathleen Ridihalgh, the Club's senior regional representative in Seattle. The relationships forged then allowed talks to continue even when labor and environmentalists found themselves clashing over coal.
"We had one of the first blue-green alliances," Ridihalgh says. "Having those discussions was very, very helpful." She and other activists queried Guenther and other labor officials on what issues were most important to them should the plant close. Job security, community reinvestment, and transition time came out on top, and the environmental coalition helped assure that they were put on the negotiating table.

NOT EVERYONE IS HAPPY WITH THE DEAL. Some environmentalists wish the plant could be closed sooner, and some residents fear that the economic hit is only being delayed. Even with the plant in operation, the unemployment rate in surrounding Lewis County, which still supports a few timber businesses, remains above 12 percent.

While people close to the deal, such as the Central Labor Council's Guenther, believe the staggered shutdown and redevelopment cash will lessen the hit, residents aren't so sure. "It's all politics," says Fred Salewski, who runs a family-owned jewelry shop in the heart of Centralia's store-lined downtown, part of the National Register of Historic Places. "No jobs around here pay more than $10 an hour, other than the jobs out there [at TransAlta]. And government jobs."

Workers covered by the deal say they've been instructed by plant officials not to talk to the media, and TransAlta officials did not respond to a request to interview employees. One electrician, who asked not to be identified and who won't be old enough to retire when the plant closes, is skeptical that he can find another job in the region that pays as well. "I've still got quite a few years left in my working career," he says. He contends that as coal plants go, the TransAlta plant has been regularly upgraded with environmental safeguards. "We gave up one of the cleanest plants in the country. It just seems to me that we've been bending over backwards and doing all this environmental stuff, and because of pressure from environmental groups, we sit down and negotiate a shutdown of a plant that generates enough electricity to supply the city of Seattle. We negotiated away our jobs."

Some of the local skepticism stems from how TransAlta handled the shutdown of its open-pit coal mine, adjacent to the power plant about seven miles northeast of town. In November 2006, the company called in workers at the end of their shift and told them to pack their tools because the mine was closed. TransAlta had decided that the cost of safety upgrades—landslides were a particular worry—was more than it wanted to pay. Some 600 workers lost their jobs, and hard feelings still linger against company executives, local politicians, state and federal regulators, and, of course, the environmentalists who had long opposed the mine.

The coal plant, though, continued to belch along, now using coal imported from the massive fields in Wyoming. That gave the Sierra Club and other environmental groups a wedge with which to build political and community pressure to shut down the plant itself. They were helped by the fact that, according to the Club's Nilles, the coal-mining lobby has a minimal presence in the region.

"Millions of dollars every year were flowing from ratepayers in Washington and Oregon to coal barons in Wyoming," Nilles says. In addition, as much as half the power from TransAlta was being sold to utilities outside the state. "The irony is that Washington appropriately sees itself as one of the greenest states in the country and has done a lot of good stuff on clean energy and reducing carbon pollution, yet its ratepayer citizens were subsidizing [dirty energy]."

But adding the community's perspective to the negotiating process may have had the biggest effect. "It was the right thing to do," the Club's Howell says. "I don't mean to be Machiavellian about it, but it was smart politically. We learned early on that we've got to take care of the community."

THE OPPORTUNITY FOR A COAL-FREE Northwest arose in the wake of failure. In January 2008, Washington governor Chris Gregoire—backed by the Sierra Club, other environmental groups, and sympathetic legislators—began pushing for cap-and-trade legislation requiring state industries to limit their greenhouse-gas emissions to specified levels or buy extra permits. The bill moved slowly through the legislature, getting watered down along the way, until it finally died in March 2009, in the midst of the recession.

That May, Gregoire set in motion a series of negotiations with TransAlta aimed at shutting down the plant by 2025. By the end of 2010, those talks had concluded without an agreement—but they did spark a response from the Sierra Club and two dozen other organizations in the Environmental Priorities Coalition, which moved the plant's closure to the top of its agenda. "People realized that this was the single most important initiative that we could do for climate change," Howell says. "That was the selling point."

Meanwhile, then-state senator Phil Rockefeller, the chair of the Senate Environment, Water, and Energy Committee, was crafting complementary legislation in Olympia. Rockefeller says he struggled to find a way to address the complicated mix of interests, including TransAlta's insistence that it be able to recoup the investments it had made installing scrubbers just a few years earlier.

"How do we ensure that they get a recovery of their costs, how do we deal with the workforce concern, how do we deal responsibly with the public health and environmental concerns and demands for action, and fit all that together and have a framework which would in fact bring the negotiations back to life?" asks Rockefeller (now Washington's representative on the Northwest Power and Conservation Council). Key was to "address the needs of the workforce, because we know that if we don't figure out a way to do that, we're not going to be able to move forward on the environment."

Last January, Rockefeller convened hearings on the role of coal in society, following up in early February with a bill aimed at closing the TransAlta plant. That set the framework for two days of intense negotiations that began on February 21, when Nilles, three allies from the Environmental Priorities Coalition, state officials, and TransAlta executives sat down in a meeting room in Seattle's Hotel Vintage Park.

It was not at all clear that there would be an agreement. In fact, at times it seemed as though the meetings would collapse. "We were close to losing it," Howell says. "Everybody was close to going home because we just didn't think we could get together." Then Nilles suggested shutting down the two boilers on different timetables rather than closing the entire facility at once. That shifted the conversation, and things moved quickly from there. Over the next few days the details were translated into a bill, which the state legislature approved on April 22, leading to the celebration under the tent a week later as hundreds of people watched Governor Gregoire sign into law the Northwest's emancipation from coal.