A week ago U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler added her voice in opposition to the proposal by the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to acquire about 9,600 acres of TransAlta’s former mining land just northeast of Centralia to be used as a wildlife and recreation area.
WDFW first floated the proposal at the beginning of this year, garnering widespread opposition from Lewis County leaders. I wrote a column shortly after panning the idea. Part of the land has already been donated to the county for massive industrial development, and money has already been spent on getting the land’s infrastructure put in place.
The wheels inside my brain, as unsteady as they are, started spinning. What is the motivation of TransAlta to switch course from supporting economic development on about 4,000 acres of the property to pushing for a recreation area that includes room for endangered species? Is it cheaper to donate the land to WDFW than complete the restoration of the former deep-mine land?
“The WDFW plan for the TransAlta property is a bad idea for Lewis County residents, Washington state citizens and even for responsible conservation advocates, and I am opposed to it,” Herrera Beutler stated in a press release.
She said the proposed land transfer would result in a missed opportunity for attracting high-paying jobs to our area. The jobs are much needed after the mine closed in 2006 resulting in the loss of 600 jobs, compounded with the impending closure of the TransAlta power plant in 2025, and the loss of hundreds of more jobs.
She, along with other county leaders, doubts that a 9,600-acre natural refuge site would bring in much in local tourism dollars.
I do not argue about the value of a large recreation area in northeast Lewis County, but the need for jobs is more evident than adding more locked-up land in Lewis County.
This is a rare, once-in-a-generation opportunity. We have a large tract of land that already has much of it set aside for economic development and is located near Interstate 5.
Already about 60 percent of Lewis County land is set aside for wildlife and exempt from taxation. If someone has a hankering for outdoor recreation, East Lewis County is just a short drive from our urban areas and full of abundant opportunities to fish, hunt, hike and even snow ski.
Central to this dispute is the 200 acres owned by the Industrial Park at TransAlta (IPAT) that is situated within the mining land. TransAlta donated that land, and more, to the Lewis Economic Development Council for economic development to help mitigate the loss of mining and power plant jobs.
When TransAlta announced the WDFW proposal, a spokesman stated, “We believe a long-term wildlife area is the best use of this property and would greatly benefit the community now and into the future.”
The problem: TransAlta already donated the land to the county years ago. WDFW clearly is looking at acquiring the entire 9,600 acres, stating in a press release TransAlta would donate 6,500 acres, and through grants, WDFW would purchase the remaining 3,100 acres.
In a pro-TransAlta opinion piece published in The Chronicle back in November of 2007, one year after the mine closed, the headline stated, “TransAlta Weathered Mine Closure With Grace.” As executive editor and main opinion writer back then, I penned the piece.
I praised TransAlta for helping the displaced mine workers find jobs or settle into retirement. I called it a “key move” that TransAlta was donating 1,000 acres of land to the Lewis Economic Development Council for industrial development that would attract family-wage jobs.
“TransAlta has proven itself over the years as being a solid partner with the Lewis County community,” I opined. “It’s actions during the mine shutdown reinforced TransAlta’s commitment to this community, and for that, we are grateful.”
Seven years later The Chronicle, in another opinion piece titled “IPAT Gives Hope for Boost to Ailing Economy,” it was stated, without any contrary debate from TransAlta, that the Canadian-based company donated the 1,000 acres to IPAT, and the land sits next to 4,000 more acres zoned for commercial and industrial use.
In April of 2015, another Chronicle article stated IPAT was overseeing 4,400 acres at the former mine site, and with the cooperation of the Lewis Economic Development Council, marketing several properties. The car-maker Tesla put feelers out for some of the property to build its batteries, but chose a site in Nevada instead.
Just three years ago another Chronicle story stated IPAT had put in a new road to a 26-acre site, complete with water and sewer infrastructure. Cost for work at the site was $3.7 million, with $2.7 million coming from the federal Economic Development Administration and another $1 million from state funding.
The article stated, “IPAT has seven areas designated for industrial development properties totaling about 4,300 acres in size. … The land, donated by TransAlta as it transitions away from coal, aims to help fill a gap that will be present after the company shuts down its last coal-fired unit in 2025.” This statement was not refuted at the time by TransAlta officials.
Again, the potential for benefits to Lewis County and Centralia are monumental. The same article stated new economic developers would spend about $1.2 billion on building and constructing facilities. The attraction, along with the rare large intact tract of land along the I-5 corridor, is the IPAT sites already have water, power (Bonneville Power Administration lines are nearby), natural gas and is very close to rail lines.
I don’t understand how TransAlta, complicit with WDFW, thinks it can turn its back on the promises of economic development of mining lands through IPAT that the international company has supported for about 15 years.
Michael Wagar is a former president, publisher and executive editor of The Chronicle.