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PPL Montana and an environmental group agree that coal ash from power plants should be regulated, but they differ on which option under consideration by the Environmental Protection Agency is best.

PPL favors regulating coal ash as a nonhazardous waste, saying the material is not hazardous and that approach would be more economical.

The Rosebud Protective Association, an affiliate of the Northern Plains Resource Council, says coal ash should be regulated as hazardous to step up enforcement and to protect public health and groundwater, which is vital to agriculture.

The state of Montana, meanwhile, believes coal ash should be regulated as a solid waste under the nonhazardous waste rules.

The EPA has proposed two options for adopting rules that would, for the first time, regulate coal ash. The deadline for commenting on the proposal is Friday. The proposals would require liners in existing containment ponds and create incentives for phasing out those ponds in favor of landfills.

The main difference between the two plans is the enforcement and implementation of the rules. One option is for direct federal enforcement under hazardous waste rules. The other option relies on lawsuits by people or states for enforcement under rules for nonhazardous waste.

Coal ash is a byproduct of burning coal at power plants and is disposed of either as a liquid in large containment ponds or as a solid at landfills. The material contains arsenic, cadmium, chromium, mercury, selenium and other substances. Without proper handling, the contaminants can enter groundwater and become a public health risk, the EPA said.

The EPA proposed the regulations after more than 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash spilled in 2008 when a containment pond failed at a Tennessee Valley Authority plant in Kingston, Tenn.

Gordon Criswell, PPL's director of Environmental and Engineering Compliance, said tests of coal ash from its Colstrip and Corette power plants show low or nondetectable levels of heavy metals. "It's not hazardous waste by definition," he said.

The cost of regulating coal ash as hazardous would be significantly more than the alternative and would result in customers paying higher electrical costs, Criswell said.

Also, coal ash can be used in making other materials, such as concrete, and as fill for roads, Criswell said. Regulating coal ash as hazardous could give it a stigma and result in less demand for re-use in other products.

All of the coal ash from the Corette Power Plant in Billings is reused either in making concrete or as fill material, Criswell said.

The coal ash from the Colstrip Power Plant is sent to large containment ponds for permanent storage. The ponds eventually will be capped and reclaimed, Criswell said.

PPL has been working with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality on a proposed administrative order to clean up and control seepage from storage ponds into groundwater.

DEQ spokeswoman Lisa Peterson said the department is still reviewing public comments on the proposed order and expects to issue a final order late this year or early next year.

PPL, Criswell said, has spent $64 million in the past 10 years and will spend another $14 million on groundwater protection systems or actions. One action is to install double liners at the ponds. Another is to use a paste technology that turns the coal ash slurry into the consistency of runny toothpaste and removes almost all of the water, he said. The paste dries quickly and can be put into the ponds with less potential for seepage, he said.

PPL identified seepage from one of its ponds in 2000 and has a monitoring system to detect and capture water, Criswell said.

Contamination at Colstrip, however, dates to the 1980s and has led to two lawsuits. The plant's previous operator, Montana Power Co., hid the problems for years before notifying the community. PPL took over operating the 2,100-megawatt plant in 1999.

In 2008, PPL and four companies that co-own the plant paid $25 million to 57 residents to settle a lawsuit over the contamination of their wells. Another lawsuit filed in 2007 by three ranching families who allege wastewater from storage ponds contaminated their property is pending.

Clint McRae, a RPA member and rancher who lives in the watershed being affected by the Colstrip ponds, said coal ash should be regulated as a hazardous waste.

McRae, who went to Denver in September to comment at an EPA hearing, said residents trusted the DEQ and the power plant owners to enforce and follow the laws.

"They have not done that," McRae said.

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The ponds continue to leak, fouling the groundwater with sulfate levels that exceed toxicity for cattle, McRae said.

The DEQ has the authority to fine PPL $10,000 a day and has not imposed any fine, McRae said.

"If Montana DEQ will not enforce the law and PPL will not follow the law, I think it's time for EPA to come in and enforce the law for us," he said.

Regulating coal as nonhazardous would be "business as usual," McRae said. "This water, when it leaks, is not benign. It's bad stuff."

McRae said he has no problem with re-using the ash in other materials and is not anti-development.

"As a rancher, a neighbor to the mine and power plants, we shouldn't be expected to absorb the cost of production."

Ed Thamke, chief of DEQ's Waste and Underground Tank Management Bureau, said the state, along with all but one or two other states, favor regulating coal ash as nonhazardous waste — "which is how we're already regulating it," he said.

Coal ash is not hazardous, he said. The solid waste rules are environmentally protective, economical and are a common sense approach toward regulating the waste, Thamke said.

The problem in Montana, Thamke said, is that electrical generating plants are exempt from the state's solid waste regulations if the waste is disposed of on site. 

"That's not to say there isn't any environmental regulation," Thamke said. The waste is regulated through water quality and discharge permits, he said.

The department tried unsuccessfully to amend the solid waste law in the 2005 and 2007 legislatures to eliminate the exemption, he said. The state will not be proposing legislation to eliminate the exemption in the 2011 session. Such a move would have to come from industry, he said.

"Everyone has a passionate opinion about this," Thamke said. "I think our agency has really done what we can under the authority granted to us."

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Contact Clair Johnson at or 657-1282.