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A Call for a Coal-Free Future in Washington

On Tuesday of last week more than 500 Washington citizens came together at the state capitol to push for legislative priorities selected by twenty-five leading environmental groups.  Washington faces many challenges this year, from protecting waterways from oil pollution to defending environmental agencies against budget cuts.  However in my own view the importance of one of this year’s priorities stands out more than any other: the push to transition Washington off the dirty TransAlta Coal Plant. 

More than any other action the state could take, replacing TransAlta with clean energy would slash Washington’s carbon footprint and protect public health from pollution.  Washington environmental groups like the Sierra Club are engaged in an all-out effort to secure a coal free future this year, pushing state legislation that would phase out coal combustion while setting up a fund to prepare the community of Centralia (where the plant is located) for new sources of industry.  Unsurprisingly, students have become an important part of this movement. 

“Washington stands at a crossroads,” said University of Washington graduate student Chris Gamble, who spoke about student efforts at a press conference Tuesday.  “We can continue to rely on dirty coal power, or embrace the clean energy of the future.”

Tuesday’s lobby day at the capitol coincided with a House Environment Committee hearing on the Coal Free Future for Washington bill, which would establish a timeline for the phase-out of coal combustion at TransAlta.  To say the hearing was well attended would be an understatement: not only were there too many people to fit in the hearing room, but the overflow room was itself filled to overflowing.  Folks like me stood outside the main room for more than an hour, waiting for the moment when someone left so that we could be admitted.  Inside the room legislators heard from citizens on both sides of the issue – and many people who testified made eloquent arguments for transitioning the state off its dirtiest power plant.

From health professionals to faith leaders to parents, Washington residents all over the state are united in calling for a coal-free future.  Students are also getting organized: there are now active Beyond Coal groups at seven Washington colleges and universities.  Student governments at three of these schools have passed resolutions urging the TransAlta Plant be closed by 2015, and similar resolutions at other schools are moving forward. 

“I really think student involvement is one of the most vital steps in helping to get these types of environmental initiatives to states legislators,” said Lori Briggs of Washington State University in Vancouver, which has passed a Beyond Coal resolution.  “It shows that the people who are being educated to lead us tomorrow have passion to see things change for the future and want to help be an active role in that change.”

For me it was invigorating to see so many passionate people of all ages take time away from work or school Tuesday to push for the future they know their state can have.  By eliminating the TransAlta Coal Plant Washington can do away with its biggest source of carbon emissions and mercury pollution, as well as an important emitter of smog and haze-causing pollutants, lead, arsenic, and other poisons that threaten public health.  Watching more than 500 people turn out for a cleaner, greener Washington was inspiring in the same way as seeing students at colleges and universities around the state organize for a coal-free future.

Make no mistake: a wave of clean energy activism is sweeping the nation.  And Washington’s turn has come.

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