Oregon’s Boardman Coal Plant: Plot Thickens around Air Pollution and Climate Change

Last month I wrote about the debate raging over Oregon’s Boardman Coal Plant—a climate change and air pollution fight with implications for coal plants throughout the United States. Since early October there have been a lot of new developments around this issue, so it’s time for an update!

When I wrote my earlier post on the Boardman Plant, Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) had just finished holding a round of hearings throughout the state, to help determine whether to stand by an earlier DEQ recommendation that the Boardman Plant either be shut down as soon as 2015, or else outfitted with expensive new pollution controls that would make continued operation of the coal plant unattractive. In cities from Portland to Eugene to Medford, Oregonians turned out to public hearings in support of holding this plant to the strictest possible pollution standards and protect our natural areas from smog pollution, acid rain, and climate change.

Just a few days after my post on Justmeans, word came out that PGE, the utility that owns the coal plant, had received a notice of violation from the federal Environmental Protection Agency for failing to comply with the Clean Air Act at the Boardman facility. In fact, the EPA ruled PGE has been breaking the law since 1998. This tallies with the claims of groups like the Sierra Club, which have long argued the pollution levels at the Boardman Plant were illegal.

Next, at the end of last month Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality agreed to re-open the public comment period on the Boardman Plant for the sole purpose of considering yet another compromised version of PGE’s “2020 plan.” PGE wants to be able to burn coal at Boardman for another ten years or longer, while avoiding the level of pollution controls specified under the DEQ’s recommendation from earlier this year. In the face of stiff opposition, the utility has been trotting one updated version of the 2020 plan after another, hoping eventually the public will bite.

No such luck for PGE: at yet another public hearing in Portland held as part of the new comment period, fully 80% of those testifying opposed the 2020 plan due to concerns about climate change and air pollution. The Sierra Club has been calling for a transition away from coal by 2015, meanwhile Greenpeace is advocating a shutdown next summer. In the face of so much public support for a speedy transition to clean energy, it’s disappointing the DEQ is still taking the 2020 plan so seriously.

Accordingly a group of students and recent college graduates (myself included) decided to make sure we were getting our message across by taking it directly to the DEQ. During the new comment period our group scheduled a meeting with Oregon DEQ Director Dick Pederson, where we were able to speak to him about our concerns and deliver a collection of written comments from students in the greater Portland area. The meeting took place this morning, and I believe it was productive for everyone involved. We organizers showed that not only are young people turning out to public hearings and calling for a swift closure to the Boardman Plant—we’re also implementing solutions to climate change and fossil fuel dependence by organizing in our communities to save energy and make coal power unnecessary. In return, Director Dick Pederson explained some of the complications the DEQ faces in deciding how to deal with Oregon’s biggest polluter.

I’m grateful to Director Dick Pederson for meeting with us so readily, and appreciate the hurdles the DEQ must navigate as it deliberates a final recommendation to bring to Oregon’s Environmental Quality Commission next month. However I believe it is as important as ever to hold the Boardman Plant to the strictest possible pollution standards, and to encourage PGE to close this pollution source by 2015 or sooner. Nothing could be as essential to clearing Oregon’s skies and minimizing this state’s contribution to the causes of climate change.

Photo credit: Nick Engelfried