Colstrip aerial

A 2013 aerial view shows Colstrip power plants and settling ponds.

COLSTRIP — Life in this small Eastern Montana town is increasingly complicated. 

And not everyone wants to talk about it.

Contaminated ground water and toxic ash ponds, and the state Department of Environmental Quality's plan to clean it up, were the topic of a community meeting that drew about two dozen people to Colstrip City Hall Wednesday night. 

But outside of the meeting, many residents didn't want to talk about it at all. And that's understandable; who wants to discus the community's escalating anxiety as the life of its sole economic engine, the Colstrip power plant, winds down?

Talen Energy, a Colstrip owner, said in June it would shut down the two oldest of the plant's four generators by the end of this year. With the closure comes years of toxic cleanup.  

Despite their reluctance to chat, it's clear Colstrip residents have a deep affection for their tidy community and are deeply invested in its economic health. 

"We've spent our whole careers here," said resident Pete Peters. "We're retired here."

Peters, who worked at the coal-fired Colstrip plant for nearly 40 years, and his wife Deb, who was a teacher in town, retired together seven years ago and now worry what the rest of their retirement might look like. 

The news of Talen's departure, two years earlier than the energy company had forecast, caught many Colstrip residents by surprise. 

Residents like the Peterses worry about the town's housing market and whether they'll ever be able to sell their homes with the future of the power plant so unclear.

Underlying those concerns is the city's contaminated ground water and the power plant's toxic ash ponds. 

The nine-pond complex has leaked an estimated 200 million gallons of contaminated water every year for the past 30 years. The state has put the cost of cleanup somewhere between $400 to $700 million, based on proposals by power plant operator Talen Energy. The cost will depend on what cleanup options the state chooses.

Colstrip aerial

A 2013 aerial view shows the Colstrip power plants and settling ponds.

Wednesday night's meeting with the DEQ was the latest step in the cleanup process, briefing the community on what's been reviewed and giving residents a chance to ask questions and express their concerns. 

The two biggest questions addressed at the meeting were what the cleanup process would entail and how much it will cost. The DEQ has yet to rule on just what the cleanup action will be, with options ranging from capping the ponds, to mixing them with cement, to removing them completely, along with much of the ground under them. 

Once the state decides what cleanup should take place, it can attach a price tag to it and the work can begin. Cleanup requires not only remediation of the ponds but also cleaning toxins from the groundwater, which contains sulfates, cobalt, lithium, selenium, manganese and boron. 

To clean the groundwater, Talen is proposing it use an injection and capture well system. The system works by placing dozens of wells around the contaminated sites and injecting fresh water into the ground, which would flush out the toxins and collect them in the capture wells.

It's a decades-long process and works best for pollutants like sulfates which move with relative ease in water, said Sara Edinberg, a hydro-geologist with DEQ. She was one of the presenters at Wednesday's meeting. 

Edinberg said the injection and capture well system doesn't work as effectively on pollutants like boron. 

The DEQ's remedy evaluation reports, which study the effectiveness of the proposed cleanup plans, will be submitted for review by the end of the month for the ponds associated with Units 3 and 4, and in October and early spring of 2020 for Units 1 and 2. 

From there the DEQ will decide which plan is best for the sites, what Talen will be required to do and how much it will cost. 

Richard Burnett owns a trailer park near the Units 1 and 2 pond complex and is eager for the cleanup to start. 

"I've got a lot of dead cottonwood trees I've got to cut down this summer," he said. "Whatever is under the ground is killing my trees."

Burnett also has apartments that he rents in town. Like others, he knows that once the jobs start to leave Colstrip he could be left with a lot of property investments that might end up worthless. 

"I expect I'll have to board up some of my apartments before too long," he said. 

Still, he said, it's more important that the state require Talen to clean up the ponds and the groundwater. The Peterses agreed. 

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"We certainly want to see the right thing done, and we want to see the town prosper if it can," Deb Peters said. 

Part of that prosperity could be wrapped into the cleanup process. Whatever remediation is decided by the state, it'll require cleanup crews to get it done.

Most residents acknowledge the cleanup will guarantee jobs, but they worry those jobs won't be as secure or as lucrative as the jobs that were offered by the power plant. 

When Talen announced in June it was shutting down half of the power plant, it said workers from Units 1 and 2 would be assigned to cleanup or transferred to the power plant's other two units. More than 300 people work at the four-unit power plant.

Many of the residents who spoke Wednesday night understand that the cleanup process ultimately has an end date, meaning whatever work it provides will be short term. 

People coming to Colstrip to work for the short term don't buy homes and they don't invest in the community, one of the residents said. 

Clint McRae, an area rancher and member of the Northern Plains Resource Council, expressed his hope that Talen will hire its cleanup crews from the residents in town. 

"Let's use these local people," he said. 

McRae expressed his frustration that it's taken 40 years and a lawsuit to get the cleanup process started.

"We have pounded the DEQ," he said. "We feel pretty good about the job they're doing now."

Wally McRae, who sat next to Clint at the meeting, agreed. 

"I am encouraged that the companies and the state of Montana are doing something," he said. "It's just unfortunate that it took so long."