2013 Colstrip file photo

A 2013 aerial view shows the town of Colstrip, power plants 1,2,3 and 4 and the Westmoreland coal mines near Colstrip. 

Plans to clean up toxic coal ash ponds at the Colstrip Power Plant remain unsettled, state regulators said July 23, but may solidify by year’s end.

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.

But Department of Environmental Quality officials have asked Talen to calculate what it would take to remove all the contaminated earth from the ponds servicing Colstrip Units 1 and 2. Right now, earth removal appears to be the most expensive option.

Talen has asked for more time to look into mixing the ash with concrete and leaving it in place. The cleanup plans have been nearly eight years in the making.

“A lot of times, folks who develop these remedial alternative analyses will focus a lot of attention on the alternative that they want without really backing up what the pros and cons are related to the other alternatives they’re evaluating,” said Aimee Reynolds, DEQ contaminated site cleanup bureau chief. “And that’s really an important piece of the puzzle. It’s not possible for us to choose an alternative without knowing what’s good and bad about the other alternative. They need to go back and do some of that.”

Removing all contaminated earth from the 800-acre site is the option proposed by the Billings-based conservation group Northern Plains Resource Council, which argues that the work would create years of employment for workers of the power plant and Rosebud Mine.

Trapping the contaminants in concrete, Talen’s preferred proposal, is known to work at other coal ash pond sites, but the science has to support using it in Colstrip, Reynolds said.

“Our concern is that, yeah, that might look great for five years or 10 years or some finite period of time, but would it be something that would be permanent?” she said. “They’re going to have to demonstrate permanence.”

Colstrip-area residents, who in 2008 sued over contaminated ground water, want the cleanup to begin.

“We’ve been demanding for 40 years that they clean up their mess, and I guess our opinion is that they’ve had 40 years to get it right and three different owners and none of them have had time to do it while they were making money,” said Clint McRae, an area rancher and Northern Plains member.

'Far too long'

Much has changed since the 2008 lawsuit was filed. A decade ago, Colstrip’s owners were insistent the oldest portions of the four-unit power plant would burn into the 2030s and that the youngest units, built in the 1980s would operate into the 2040s. The coal economy was rolling. New mines were being proposed and Brian Schweitzer, Montana’s governor at the time, was capturing national attention with his plans to convert coal to diesel fuel.

Today, six of the Powder River Basin’s mining companies have gone bankrupt as coal prices continue to plummet. Coal power struggles to compete with cheaper electricity generated from natural gas and renewable energy resources. Colstrip Units 1 and 2 will close at year’s end. Talen and Puget Sound Energy, which splits ownership of the units evenly, say the units are no longer economical.

Montana’s current governor, Democrat Steve Bullock, is less 17 months from the end of his second term and currently running for president.

What hasn't changed much, said Anne Hedges of the Montana Environmental Information Center, is DEQ's progress on securing a cleanup plan and financing from the Colstrip owners.

"It's been far too long with these companies sitting there, holding their own money and the state of Montana in the wind, waiting," Hedges said.

The lawsuit that forced the state and Colstrip owners to begin cleanup talks was filed in 2008, when area residents argued cleanup was already long overdue. There are three different cleanup phases for the entire Colstrip complex. Only plans for one have been finalized. The reasons for the most recent delays, like Talen's study of fixing the toxic ash in concrete, have been on the table for a long time. The concrete proposal is already decades old, Hedges said.

MEIC, which has sued over the coal ash pollution, is doubtful DEQ will have cleanup money in hand and plans finalized next year. The cleanup option MEIC prefers might not be the one selected.

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"No. 1, we want all ash removed from below the groundwater table," Hedges said. "Anything less than that is a nonstarter. We would like to see any ash near the groundwater table removed and put in a safe, lined area."

The ponds continue to leak, rendering the groundwater undrinkable for the Colstrip community of about 2,300. The polluted ponds’ worst ingredient is “bottom ash,” a highly concentrated coal ash sludge that contains lead, arsenic, boron and other toxic chemicals that can cause liver, kidney, brain and testicle damage.

Both the power plant and the Colstrip community depend on water piped in from the Yellowstone River, 30 miles away.

DEQ expects to the have plans in place by the end of the year to approve work on the Unit 2 area or the pond complex. That work would start in 2020, with the actual time determined by weather, though Jenny Chambers, DEQ waste management and remediation division administrator said the work might start before spring. The Unit 1 area needs some more tests, but cleanup plans could be finalized by the end of the year.

Reynolds said the ash pond cleanup work should start before another governor takes office. The cleanup is expected to take decades. At one point, Talen suggested the cleanup could finish in the 2060s, though DEQ hemmed in the timeline.

DEQ still needs to collect the money for the cleanup from the Colstrip Power Plant owners. Talen, Puget Sound Energy, Avista Corp., PacifiCorp, Portland General Electric and NorthWestern Energy have ownership shares in Colstrip.

Who pays?

Legal battles have already erupted over covering the ash pond cleanup. Talen has sued a former Colstrip owner, PPL Corp, hoping to recover $198 million in ash pond cleanup costs, though the company says an additional $500 million is owed to satisfy state cleanup requirements. Talen says it can cover its share of the cleanup costs regardless of the lawsuit's outcome. Talen was spun off from PPL, which operated the power plant for 16 years.

The money won’t be collected until the state selects the cleanup plans for three different cleanup areas, but Reynolds said DEQ expects to have the cleanup plans settled and money in hand before a new governor takes office.

“I think we’ll have almost all of the financial assurance in place by the beginning of next year, so before there’s an administration change,” Reynolds said, adding that changes can be made if needed. “I’m pretty confident we’re going to be where we need to be before Bullock leaves office.”