By Don McIntosh
The first of two 670 megawatt coal-fired electric plants in Centralia, Washington, will close permanently Dec. 31. The closure means the layoff of 64 employees, including 38 members of IBEW Local 125. The second coal plant will close in 2025. That’s 10 and 15 years earlier than the expected useful life of the two plants.
The closures are part of an effort by the State of Washington to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The state had want-ed to close both plants in 2015, but a December 2011 agreement between the state and Canadian coal plant owner TransAlta delayed the closures, giving TransAlta an opportunity to recoup its investments and committing the company to set aside $55 million for a Coal Transition Fund to cushion the blow for workers and the community.
Workers laid off now, and those who remain until the 2025 closure, will get a lump sum payment from the fund of about $44,000.
“It’s an unfortunate situation,” said Local 125 Assistant Business Manager Jake Carter. “We negotiated the best we could for our members.”
John Grove, a control foreman and a Local 125 union steward at the plant, said at least 18 of those to be laid off Jan. 4 volunteered for it, mostly senior employees who are close to retirement.
“It’s not like it’s a surprise,” Grove said. “Everybody’s known this was coming since 2011.”
With closure on the horizon, a lot of the plant’s workers have already moved on to other utility jobs in the region, Grove said. Since 2011, the workforce at the two plants had fallen from 238 to about 179 workers.
Grove himself will stay on until the second plant closes in 2025. He says he and others appreciate the transition fund, but he’s concerned about the loss of 670 megawatts of base load power that keeps the electric grid reliable, and he worries that Lewis County will suffer when the last of the well-paying jobs goes away. The area previously suffered the loss of 560 jobs in 2006 when TransAlta shut a nearby coal mine that used to supply the plant.
Dan Fugate, a 20-year TransAlta employee, is part of another set of layoffs that will take place in April.
“It’s a sad time for someone like me that sees an end of an era,” Fugate said. “This is a facility where you could go to work, make a family wage, and send your kids to college. That’s going away.”
That $55 million coal transition fund will pay for $25 million in clean energy projects, $10 million in grants to businesses, nonprofit organizations and local governments for energy efficiency and weatherization, and $20 million for economic and community development. The community development part of the fund includes $8 million for the payouts to displaced workers, plus $1 million for education and retraining. Displaced workers — or alternatively their spouses — can apply for education grants of up to $15,000. Funds are dispensed as grants overseen by a board composed of company and local leaders.
“I’m very proud of the money we put forth,” says Bob Guenther, who sits on the grant committee. Guenther, a former mechanic at the coal plant, was a lobbyist for IBEW Local 77 in 2011 and worked with Sierra Club to negotiate the delayed closure and transition fund deal.
“We have not replaced what we’re losing,” Guenther said, “but we’re doing ancillary work that will help replace those jobs as time goes on.”