boardman farm flickr friendsoffamilyfarmsOregon’s only coal plant has been in the news lately—both for a showdown brewing over its fate and for the pollution that may be left behind. So, here’s a quick roundup of issues at Portland General Electric’s coal plant in Boardman, Oregon.

Ted Sickinger at the Oregonian (who’s been following the twists and turns of this story) reports that state regulators and the utility have been at a stalemate over how and when to close the coal plant, which will need significant upgrades in the next decade to meet pollution standards. Today, PGE made another offer. Here’s where different players stand:

  • Oregon environmental regulators want the utility to stop burning coal there by 2018 or 2020, which would be decades earlier than PGE originally expected to close the plant. But they also want the utility to spend up to $320 million to reduce air pollution in the meantime.
  • PGE is threatening to keep the plant running until 2040 if the state requires the utility to make such a large investment. Now, the utility has proposed another alternative: close the plant in 2020 and spend only $75 million on new pollution controls (plus additional operating costs.)
  • Other groups, such as the Sierra Club, are pushing for a shutdown by 2015.

As we’ve written before, the state of Oregon is taking a gamble. It’s not in the state’s interest to have the coal plant operate until 2040. From an environmental perspective, it doesn’t make sense to keep burning such a highly polluting fuel when there are much cleaner alternatives. And it would be an unwise investment—one that could hurt Oregon’s ratepayers—to sink millions of dollars into a coal plant that would become uneconomical if future climate policies require polluters to pay for the right to release carbon pollution into the air. But the state has been pretty unequivocal that, in the meantime, the utility must reduce emissions that cause smog, exacerbate air pollution, and damage babies’ and kids’ developing brains. So it’s a question of balancing all those goals.

And speaking of pollution, it’s not just what comes out of the stack that’s problematic.

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  • A new report suggests that coal ash from Boardman and dozens of other power plants have contaminated groundwater supplies around the country. The toxic metals found in coal that don’t get released out of smokestacks are left behind in ash and waste products. After being dumped in unlined ponds and pits, coal ash pollution can easily leach into groundwater (which can contaminate drinking water and cause health problems, as one Montana town found out the hard way.)

    The extent of coal ash contamination is usually difficult to gauge, because state and federal laws haven’t forced utilities to look very hard for it. The report by the Sierra Club, Environmental Integrity Project, and Earthjustice says drinking water wells near Boardman’s ash disposal area have shown elevated levels of dangerous toxics and cancer-causing substances such as arsenic, selenium, vanadium, chloride, sulfate, and total dissolved solids, which the authors attribute to the coal ash. What’s more troubling, according to the study, is that groundwater in the area is used for irrigation at a nearby organic farm and cattle feedlot, as well as possibly for drinking water sources.

    It sounds like no one can say for sure whether that water is safe because the utility hasn’t been required to assess the extent of any contamination. Apparently, there were no such requirements put in place when the state set environmental monitoring and release conditions for the plant in 1975.

    That’s why the federal government is proposing to regulate coal ash–to create a consistent set of rules that actually protect the public. But let’s hope that in Oregon, at least, we won’t need them for much longer.

    Boardman farm photo courtesy of flickr user friendsoffamilyfarmers under a Creative Commons license.