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PPL Montana will close its J.E. Corette coal-fired power plant in Billings for good sometime in August, the company reported Tuesday.

As recently as two weeks ago, PPL said it planned to mothball Corette on April 15 because the 47-year-old plant doesn’t meet new mercury pollution standards that begin in mid-April.

“The company re-evaluated a 2012 decision to mothball the plant and retain the option to restart it if wholesale power market conditions in the Northwest changed,” PPL said in its Tuesday announcement. “The estimated cost of upgrades that would be required to put the plant back in service has increased significantly since 2012, and wholesale power prices in the Northwest remain low.”

PPL still plans to stop producing power at the plant April 15, said David Hoffman, PPL Montana spokesman. The company will begin decommissioning Corette in August.

Federal Mercury and Air Toxics Standards require power plants to eliminate most of their mercury pollution. The rules have been in the works since 2011 but don’t kick in until mid-April.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that industry cost of meeting the new mercury pollution standards would be $9.6 billion.

Corette employs 30 people. After announcing its plan in 2012 to mothball the plant, PPL began working to relocate those workers to other power generating facilities. Many of the Corette employees with 40-plus years at the facility plan to retire.

Union officials told The Gazette in January they preferred that demolition not be delayed if Corette was shut down permanently, meaning construction jobs would open up. It appears that tear-down and cleanup would start right after the decommissioning and continue for two years.

First owned by the now-defunct Montana Power Co., Corette managed to remain functional without pollution controls for decades. It opted for lower-sulfur coal in 1997 when confronted by clean air standards. In the 1980s, Montana Power lobbied for exemption from state law when confronted with Montana clean air standards.

Both Montana Power and PPL have argued that adding pollution controls never penciled out with Corette’s profits. Montana Power said adding air scrubbers to Corette in the 1980s would have cost $20 million to $50 million. PPL put the cost of adding mercury-trapping technology at $38 million.

The decision to shutter the 153 megawatt Corette plant has no bearing on PPL’s operations in Colstrip, the company said. Corette was built in 1968 for $17 million, according to news archives.

Political winds swirled around PPL Montana’s decision.

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines pinned Corette’s closure on President Barack Obama and he called the new mercury pollution standards misguided.

“Once again, good-paying American jobs are falling ruin to the Obama administration’s war on American energy. The closing of the Corette power plant isn’t just a blow to Montana’s economy — it’s devastating news to the Montana families who rely on the plant for a stable income,” Daines said in a press release.

Plant employees told The Gazette in January that Corette was producing about a 130 megawatts of power these days, enough to electrify 90,000 to 130,000 homes. The power plant burns coal from Eagle Butte Mine near Gillette, Wyo., according to employees.

Corette going offline in April, won't affect NorthWestern Energy, which serves 342,000 Montana customers. Coal power once provided 48 percent of the energy in NorthWestern’s portfolio, said spokesman Butch Larcombe, but the company purchased dams from PPL and also boosted the wind power in its portfolio. Coal power now accounts for 26 percent of NorthWestern’s energy supply. The company provides about 750 megawatts a day to customers, which is less than it can produce.

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.