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Energy | Environment

What the EPA's New Rules On Coal-Plant Toxics Mean for the Northwest

Portland General Electric's coal-fired power plant in Boardman, Ore.

Portland General Electric’s coal-fired power plant in Boardman, Ore.

Vince Patton

The Obama Administration Wednesday put out the nation’s first rules on coal-fired power plants’ emissions of mercury and other toxics. The action comes 40 years after the passage of the Clean Air Act and 20 years since that act was amended to regulate such pollutants.

The Northwest, with its abundant hydropower and emerging green-energy sectors, is far from the most coal-dependent region in the country (See U.S. map of plants). But coal is still a significant part of the energy mix here.

View Northwest Coal Plants in a larger map

Utilities operate coal-fired plants in Centralia, Wash., and Boardman, Ore., and rely on electricity generated in other Western states to power homes and businesses here.

In 2010, the Portland General Electric’s Boardman plant smokestacks emitted 206.4 pounds of mercury; TransAlta’s Centralia plant released 331.3 pounds of mercury into the atmosphere, according to the U.S. EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory.

(A May, 2011 report on the TransAlta coal-fired plant from EarthFix partner station KCTS 9 in Seattle)

The Boardman plant is installing new equipment to meet Oregon’s mercury standard, and that work will be done by July 2012, said Joan Stevens-Schwenger, a spokesperson for the Department of Environmental Quality. The upgrade will allow the Boardman plant to reduce its mercury emissions by 90 percent, she said. That will bring the plant in compliance with both Oregon’s standards and the new EPA standards.

PGE’s Boardman plant will eventually cease using coal in 2020. Company spokesman Steve Corson says the state standards already in place are more stringent than what the EPA put forward.

“While - and we can’t give a definitive answer yet - it does appear that we may be able to meet the new rules using the controls that we’ve already agreed to,” Corson says.

The TransAlta plant is on track to meet the new standards, said Michael Wager, a spokesman for TransAlta in Centralia.

“Centralia is on of the cleanest coal plants in North America, having invested $300 million in pollution controls since 2000, and we’ll continue to fulfill that commitment, which allows us to provide grid stability and take care of the environment and also provide jobs that are needed here in Lewis County,” Wagar said.

Portland General Electric has agreed to stop burning coal at its Boardman plant by 2020. TransAlta agreed with Washington State to close one coal-fired boiler by 2020 and the second one by 2025.

Screen shot 2011-12-21 at 12.14.02 PM
Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Until that happens — and Northwest utilities stop bringing electricity onto the grid from coal-fired plants elsewhere in the West — the carbon-based material will continue to represent a significant part of the region’s energy.

Washington gets 17 percent of its power from coal. Oregon gets 34 percent from coal. Idaho’s largest utility, Idaho Power, does not own any coal-fired plants. But it does own a percentage of three operating plants:

  • The North Valmy Facility in Nevada (50 percent ownership, 261 megawatts)
  • The Boardman Coal Plant in Oregon (10 percent ownership, 59 megawatts)
  • The Jim Bridger Coal Plant in Wyoming (33 percent ownership, 706 megawatts)


  • Brain Damage
  • Mental Retardation
  • Blindness
  • Seizures
  • Kidney Damage
  • Nervous System Problems
  • Digestive System Issues

Source: CDC

PacifiCorp, with customers in Oregon and Washington, also relies on coal-fired plants from outside the Northwest. The utility operates 26 coal-fired boilers at 11 locations in Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona and Colorado, according to The Oregonian newspaper.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates the new standards will prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths and 4,700 heart attacks a year. The standards will also help America’s children grow up healthier – preventing 130,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms and about 6,300 fewer cases of acute bronchitis among children each year. The rule

“Since toxic air pollution from power plants can make people sick and cut lives short, the new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards are a huge victory for public health,” said Dr. Albert A. Rizzo, national volunteer chairman of the American Lung Association, during the press conference in Washington, D.C.


  • Lung Damage
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Increased Heart Rate
  • Skin Rashes
  • Eye Irritation

Source: CDC

Mercury enters people’s bodies through food, mainly when they eat contaminated fish, and through breathing contaminated air, according to the Centers for Disease Control. As seen in the graphic above, coal-powered plants smokestacks emit mercury; the mercury can enter water and fish and then the people who eat the fish. Or, people may simple breathe the vapors. The results can be devastating, particularly for fetuses, infants and children.

People who live near or downwind from coal-fired power plants are at risk of both types of exposure. When inhaled, the vapors may reach the brain and cause irreversible neurological damage, including memory loss, tremors and changes in hearing and vision, according to the CDC.

For More Health Information Contact: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry Division of Toxicology and Environmental Medicine 1600 Clifton Road NE, Mailstop F-62 Atlanta, GA 30333 Phone: 1-800-CDC-INFO · 888-232-6348 (TTY) Fax: 1-770-488-4178 Email:

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