Colstrip aerial

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

Horses forever changed life on the Great Plains for the Cheyenne people. They allowed for the Cheyenne tribe to hunt more buffalo than ever before. They tipped the balance of power in favor of mounted warriors, and they became prized as wealth. For Northern Cheyenne today, horses endure as an emblem of tradition and a source of pride, pageantry, and healing.

The sudden loss of the buffalo for plains tribes was a disaster that delivered an economic and cultural shock that persists today, more than a century later. The economic and social shocks were the greatest for tribes that relied heavily on the bison for their sustenance and lost them rapidly due to a massive slaughter by hide hunters in the 1870s and 1880s.

Today we see this historic event taking place with dangerous waters: America’s coal ash crisis. When coal ash spills, leaks, or leaches into nearby groundwater or waterways, the toxins contained within pose serious health risks to nearby communities. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency found that living near certain coal ash ponds is significantly more dangerous than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.

A person living within one mile of an unlined coal ash pond that co-disposes coal refuse has a 1 in 50 lifetime risk of cancer — more than 2,000 times higher than the EPA goal for cancer risk. According to the EPA, 1.54 million American children live near coal ash storage sites. Coal ash contains many toxins, including arsenic, lead, mercury, selenium, aluminum, barium, boron and chlorine. These toxins can cause cancer, heart damage, lung disease, respiratory distress, kidney disease, reproductive problems, gastrointestinal illness, birth defects, and impaired bone growth in children. In short, coal ash toxins have the potential to damage every one of our major organ systems. It has caused collateral damage to those that helped with the clean up.

Incredibly, there are no federal standards for the storage and disposal of coal ash to protect communities and waterways from coal ash pollution; no federal standards exist for monitoring groundwater or reporting coal ash pit integrity or pollution. What exists in place of a strong uniform standard is a disjointed and ineffective jumble of state-based regulations.

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Many coal ash dumps lack basic safety features and regular inspections, leaving communities at risk of large scale disasters like those in Kingston, Tennessee, and the Dan River spill in North Carolina. Far more common than a full impoundment failure, however, are the unreported slow leaching of coal ash and pond overflows that pollute our water. Many states do not require owners to line coal ash ponds or monitor nearby groundwater. The EPA has confirmed water contamination from coal ash in every state where coal ash is stored, more than 200 cases in all. However, because there are no federal standards to require reporting, the full picture of coal ash pollution and the damage it causes remains cloudy.

This untold Colstrip disaster is another sad legacy of out-of-state corporations coming into Montana, stripping away the natural resources, and leaving a toxic site behind. the chemical conglomerate W.R. Grace, the Zortman-Landusky gold mine, the multinational ARCO and its Berkeley Pit have spoiled Montana with some of the nation's worst and most expensive toxic waste sites. Montanans are slowly and reluctantly waking up to the fact that Colstrip may be Montana’s next catastrophe.

Colstrip 's coal ash system is not working. Colstrip does not need one of its high hazard dams to break for a catastrophe to occur. It is happening now, and has been going on for decades. Montanans and all Americans need strong, federally enforceable protections from the serious dangers posed by coal ash.

Communities on the front line of coal ash fight, as well as public health and environmental groups, are calling for strong, federally enforceable protections for public health and safety.


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Kenneth Medicine Bull ranches near Birney.