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Billings politicians make pitch to save Colstrip; state regulators skeptical
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Billings politicians make pitch to save Colstrip; state regulators skeptical

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Two Billings Republicans are asking the public to get behind a coal ash cleanup proposal they say could save Colstrip Power Plant.

Public Service Commissioner Tony O’Donnell and state Rep. Rodney Garcia say the millions of tons of coal ash at the power plant could be blended into concrete and used as a building material for the next 40 years. The two made their pitch Wednesday outside the locked gates of the former J.E Corette Power Plant in Billings where they introduced David White, CEO of RamRock, a Chattanooga, Tennessee, business making building materials from industrial waste.

O’Donnell said blending coal combustible residuals into concrete was an opportunity for Colstrip’s utility owners in Washington and Oregon to clean up a toxic liability forever. Corette would benefit, as well, O'Donnell said. Current plans call for leaving the Colstrip ash ponds in place and installing 54 pumps to continuously inject fresh water into the ground to flush out leaking ash pond toxins.

“This is a PR bonanza for them,” O’Donnell said of the owners. “They can take credit. They can say ‘We caused the problem and now we are fixing the problem by turning waste to wealth.’”

Both Garcia and O’Donnell face contested Republican spring primaries, which start next week.

The Colstrip ash ponds are a toxic liability. An estimated 145.5 million gallons of contaminated water a year leak below or through the slurry cutoff wall surrounding the lined ponds servicing Colstrip Units 3 and 4, according to DEQ. There’s some rain and snow water in the mix as well. Colstrip’s groundwater is undrinkable. Both the Colstrip community and its namesake power plant pipe water in 30 miles from the Yellowstone River. The ponds contain lead, arsenic, boron and other toxic chemicals that can cause kidney, brain and testicle damage.

DEQ expects to have $400 million in cleanup bonding from power plant owners for the Unit 3 and 4 ponds by early summer. Cleanup could cost as much as $700 million. The work is expected to take decades.

The ash ponds that once served the now-shuttered Colstrip Units 1 and 2 leak another 15.8 million gallons of toxic water per year, according to DEQ. Cleanup plans for those units aren’t settled.

Cleanup negotiations between the power plant owners and the state have spanned nearly all of Gov. Steve Bullock’s eight-year tenure. In February, the state gave conditional approval to plant operator Talen Energy’s plan to perpetually pump clean water into ground in order to flush out contamination from the seeping Unit 3 and 4 ash ponds.

DEQ and Commerce Department officials reacted skeptically when Garcia approached them about RamRock’s process in the spring of 2019. In an email after the meeting, Ed Thamke, DEQ Waste and Underground Tank Management Bureau chief, referred to the proposal disparagingly.

“Rick (Thompson), Karen (Ogden), Nick (Whitaker) and I met with Rep. Garcia last Friday to discuss his constituents magic box,” Thamke said in an interagency email. “We were clear that any beneficiation of the coal ash waste had to be demonstrated chemically and not just turning one waste stream into another. Rick offered to get our materials recycling specialists together with the constituent to analyze the process and beneficial use product(s). So far the only real demonstration we’ve seen is Rep. Garcia’s optimism and desire to make something positive happen for Colstrip.”

The email was later included in a large public document dump sent by DEQ to utility regulators in Washington as part of that state’s investigation into performance problems with Colstrip Power Plant and whether Washington customers should pay more, which they won't.

Wednesday, DEQ officials said it was up to RamRock to apply for beneficial use determination, or BUD, approval. Garcia and White visited with DEQ the week of April 20.

“We recognize that reusing or diverting such industrial by-products from the waste stream can be a good approach. DEQ supports proposals to do so by exempting them from the requirement to obtain a solid waste management system license,” Rebecca Harbage, DEQ public policy director, said in an email Wednesday. “However, in order for us to help move a proposal along and grant such an exemption, we need to confirm that the products will be used in a specific, and beneficial manner so we’re not just turning waste into more/different waste. Our process for this requires review and approval of a Beneficial Use Determination (BUD). To date, we have not received an application for a BUD for the specific proposal you referenced.”

The BUD application would be a first step for RamRock, Harbage said.

Garcia and White said they are hopeful the power plant owners will pay for the research necessary to prove the RamRock product’s usefulness to DEQ. The process would likely mean taking a few tons of coal ash from each Colstrip pond and turning it into a concrete product through testing.

Talen Energy, the power plant operator and one of six Colstrip owners, told Lee Montana Newspapers that it has concerns about RamRock’s proposal.

“While Talen Montana has met with RamRock regarding their technology, we have serious concerns about the technical feasibility and financial viability of their proposal that RamRock has not yet sufficiently addressed,” said Taryne Williams, Talen’s media and community relations manager. “As such, we are not currently in a position to recommend to the Colstrip owners that they fund the project RamRock has proposed. We will continue to evaluate this and other projects that may be able to beneficially reuse Colstrip's ash and proceed when prudent to do so.”

Garcia has been an outspoken advocate for Colstrip Power Plant. In the 2019 Legislature, he introduced a bill directing Montana to buy Colstrip. At the time, it was thought the four-unit power plant would lose its two oldest units in 2022, a no-later-than date agreed to by Colstrip owners in 2016 in order to settle an air pollution lawsuit and spare Units 3 and 4.

The younger units, built in the early 1980s, faced their own problems, namely that climate change politics of voters in Washington and Oregon were compelling early exits of four Colstrip owners starting in 2027.

The circumstances grew more challenging for Colstrip as 2019 proceeded. By early spring, Washington’s Legislature passed a climate change law banning coal power by mid-2025. Then in June, Talen and Puget Sound Energy, who split ownership of Units 1 and 2, announced they would shut down in six months. The units were no longer economical in a market where gas-fired power plants and renewable energy sources were producing electricity more cheaply than coal combustion.

NorthWestern Energy, which has 374,000 Montana customers is seeking preapproval to buy more of Coltrip Unit 4. It has a 30% share of the unit now. Puget Sound Energy is selling its 25% share of Unit 4. NorthWestern and Talen each intend to buy half of what Puget sells. There's no assurance buying out Puget will keep Unit 4 running beyond May 2025.

Garcia said the Wednesday appeal was to take RamRock’s case to the public. The bigger RamRock plan involved building indoor gardens with the concrete and pumping them full of carbon dioxide from the power plant for years to come.

“What the purpose of this is, is to elevate this to a conversation with the public,” he said.

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