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On Feb. 11, the Billings Gazette editorial board published an opinion piece regarding their interview with Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, the chairman of the House Energy and Telecommunications committee. Zolnikov is an intelligible voice on many energy issues, however; in light of the assertions that were made in his interview with The Gazette, we, as legislators representing the Colstrip area, would like to make a few points, particularly on the topic of the coal ash pond remediation costs.

The opinion article speculated that Colstrip’s pond cleanup will cost $700 million and that the taxpayers are going to be left holding the bag. This is the popular story being circulated, but that story is inaccurate.

Let’s start with the $700 million figure. This amount is actually the uppermost value in a potential range. The anticipated total cost of the remedies for Colstrip ash pond remediation is between $400 million and $700 million. The actual figure will be determined by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality by the end of 2019. The 2012 Administrative Order on Consent for Colstrip with DEQ requires that DEQ be provided with collateral to cover expected remediation costs while the cleanup is ongoing.

The Colstrip AOC alone outlines the process required to document and implement cleanup at the Colstrip Power plant. Under the AOC, financial assurance is required in three phases: 1. To cover five years of current operating costs for remediation, 2. To cover the costs of the DEQ-approved remedies, and 3. Pond closure. Currently this process is in phase 2.

So, who will shoulder the costs of cleanup? The AOC is binding upon Talen Energy or any potential successor of Talen Energy, which means the responsibility is passed on to any successive operators. While the several-hundred-million-dollar third phase has not yet been reached, Talen Energy is currently working through the process on schedule. Talen is beholden to comply with Federal Coal Combustion Residual regulations and the Montana Coal-Fired Generating Unit Remediation Act. This act requires both submittal of a decommissioning plan to the DEQ and that the operator cover the cost of the decommissioning. The bottom line: by law the operator will cover the costs.

In short, the cost has not been determined to be $700 million, and the public will not be burdened with shouldering the cost.

These facts do not fit into the tale being spread by some. Those who wish to see the Colstrip plants close won’t allow the facts to get in the way of a negative headline. They tout a huge cleanup figure to promote their goal – full closure and complete reclamation of the Colstrip plant site. By making the cleanup appear to be so costly they hope that the plant owners will have no choice but to shut it down. Distortions of the truth meant to cause fear and scare the public with inflated price tags in order to speed up the plant’s demise are simply irresponsible. Throughout Montana, and especially at the Legislature, our decisions need to be based on the full disclosure of facts and the full picture of what is at stake for everyone - not a slanted version intended to serve a particular interest.

Montana’s industries and our hard-working citizens need dependable power we can count on. We need to trust in the process and protections that DEQ has built and continues to manage. Likewise, the Colstrip plant is honoring its cleanup obligations, and there is no reason to believe it won’t continue to do so.

We encourage you to get the full picture for yourself by connecting with DEQ, which publishes all public disclosures regarding the Colstrip plant (including analysis of proposed and approved remediation efforts, as well as assignment and payment of financial assurance). Please also research the importance of Colstrip in relation to jobs, taxes and the local economy – and how difficult it would be to fill the hole in the state’s economy left by its shutdown. Finally, consider what would happen without the reliability of Colstrip’s baseload power – and the true scale of what it would take to replace that power once it’s gone.

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Republicans Sen. Duane Ankney, of Colstrip, Rep. Geraldine Custer of Forsyth and Sen. Jason Small of Lame Deer wrote this opinion.

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