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Colstrip aerial

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

With the shutdown of Colstrip Units 1 and 2 just two months away, state regulators are deciding on the best way to clean up waste ponds being used by the two larger units that will keep operating after Dec. 31.

Action on the Revised Remedy Evaluation Report for Units 3 and 4 is just one part of closure, mitigation and cleanup that is necessary to prevent water, land and air pollution from one of the West's largest coal-fired generating complexes. Talen Energy, which owns part of Units 1 and 2 and operates all four units, has estimated that the total cost of cleaning up all the coal ash ponds at Colstrip will be between $400 million and $700 million.

The remediation at issue in the present Unit 3 and 4 ponds case would cost about $111 million — if the DEQ approves the remedy Talen proposes. Talen wants to keep the coal ash in the ponds, drill more wells around the ponds and cap the ponds, basically aiming to isolate the coal ash, which contains pollutants.

In the report, Talen evaluates several other alternatives, including digging up all the ash and moving it to a new lined impoundment. That alternative is favored by some ranchers and farmers, including members of Northern Plains Resource Council. They want the plant owners to remove the contaminated ash to landfills that are lined to prevent pollutants from getting into groundwater.

Colstrip owners have been pressured to clean up all the ash ponds for more than a decade because the ponds have leaked into nearby groundwater and continue to leak large quantities of contaminated water every day. Colstrip homeowners won a lawsuit years ago for damage to their property from the ponds, but the leakage continues.

Commenting on Talen's proposed remedy, DEQ hydrogeologist Sara Edinberg wrote: "DEQ believes that the technology is promising, and is capable of remediating the groundwater. However, the remediation proposal will probably need to be tweaked a bit, based on comments, for it to fully achieve an adequate remediation."

Testimony to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency earlier this month suggests that the "remove to dry landfill" remedy is a safer choice.

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“Our experiments suggest that when coal ash interacts with water as it will if it is spread on soil or buried in soil without protective liners — there is extensive mobilization of arsenic, selenium, and chromium, in the form of highly toxic hexavalent chromium,” stated Avner Vengosh, a professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke University.

Vengosh cautioned the regulatory body to reconsider its proposed rollback of an Obama-era coal ash rule set to protect human health and water quality around the country, according to a report previously published in the Casper Star-Tribune.

DEQ has said it expects to choose a remedy for remediation of the Units 3 and 4 ash ponds yet this fall and that Talen and the other Colstrip owners then will be required to have "financial assurance" in place for this work 60 days after the remedy is chosen.

Now is the time to secure bonds to do this remediation right with a permanent solution. All the owners of Units 3 and 4 have made plans to be ready to retire Units 3 and 4, except for NorthWestern Energy, the South Dakota company that is the biggest electric utility in Montana. PacificCorp, Puget Sound Energy and Avista say they will be ready to leave in 2027, Portland General Electric must be out of the coal-fired generation by 2035.

The DEQ must secure bonds from the current owners while 3 and 4 are still operating. It will be much more difficult, if not impossible, to hold these utilities accountable when the units are no longer operating and the utilities' customers no longer get electricity from Colstrip.

The public interest in cleanup of the Colstrip ash ponds is for a lasting solution. Remember, the cleanup expenditures will create jobs in Colstrip for a generation — by some estimates, 200 jobs for 20 years. Some Colstrip plant jobs will be cut when Units 1 and 2 close at year's end. Some jobs may be lost at the Rosebud Mine, whose new owners still have not negotiated a price for coal for next year.

There are skilled workers in Colstrip who may be looking for new jobs in a few months. Remediation done right will create new jobs and prevent this prosperous community from becoming another SuperFund site.

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