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Billings Rep. Daniel Zolnikov calls it the $700 million question: Who is going to pay for the clean-up of Colstrip power plant's coal ash ponds, and how much will it cost?

Currently, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality pegs the number at $700 million, but true clean-up costs in Montana have been notoriously underestimated, and no one will really know until the work begins. 

If $700 million is an accurate number, it's still a bit unclear who will shoulder the burden of paying for all of it?

Zolnikov, who is the chairman of the Montana House Energy Committee, told The Gazette that regardless of the pricetag, the cost should be borne by the companies that own the Colstrip plant, not the taxpayers, who have historically been on the hook for other Montana clean-ups of mineral extraction. 

He said that clean-up responsibility belongs to Colstrip's six owners, many of which are publicly regulated utilities and aren't likely to disappear, even if they have to pay for clean-up. And for groups like Talen Energy, which is not a public utility, it will post a surety bond for its share by the end of the calendar year, Zolnikov said. 

As an added safeguard, the state's DEQ has about $80 million set aside for clean-up. Granted, that's not an amount that would cover the total clean-up bill, but it helps buoy the project.

We share Zolnikov's concern: Taxpayers in Montana have had to clean up after corporations and company made millions by leaving behind the mess of a costly clean-up. We are going to hold lawmakers to their word when it comes making sure taxpayers don't have to pay for the ponds, which carry with them significant environment concerns.

We also expect the DEQ and other state leaders to make sure that we're fully protected for the full amount because the cost is so high and likely to be much higher once it's completed. We also want the Legislature to make sure the surety bonds are secured.

The next question is how much will Montanans pay? And the answer to that looks to depend on where you live. Customers of NorthWestern Energy could be on hook for $100 million -- roughly 1/6th of the cost -- because that's its ownership share.

But Zolnikov has questions: Did the Montana ratepayers already pay for clean-up as part of the operational costs? Or did it pay when Northwestern purchased it? Can the Montana publicly regulated utility convince the Public Service Commission that it should be allowed to saddle the public with its portion of the clean-up costs going forward?

While we understand that coal ash ponds are a part of any coal operation, we also want to make sure that large corporations can't find an excuse to shift the burden. And, we'd like to know: How much would a typical utility bill rise and for how long?

Finally, this brings us to the discussion of Colstrip's future. While some are proposing the state take over the aging power generating complex, others are proposing shuttering the facility entirely. 

Yet Zolnikov sees a gray, ashy lining to this otherwise silver cloud.

Granted, coal faces an uncertain global future, at best. That's something that not necessarily Colstrip can overcome. Global markets, pollution and cheaper alternatives have spelled big trouble for America's most reliable power source.

Timelines from the clean-up efforts project nearly 30 years into the future. And $700 million will go a long way in keeping people employed in Colstrip. In fact, there will likely be a cottage industry in clean-up that should provide work to those already working.

In the meantime, though, Colstrip has a chance to reinvent itself. Not only that, but Colstrip has something that other communities would kill to have -- the already-built infrastructure of powerlines heading into the community. 

That means there's a ready-made energy future there if the city or the energy industry decides Colstrip can be a place of different power generation. That's what Zolnikov sees. 

"What they have right there right now is valuable and if we don't do something to utilize it, we lose something that they'll never build again," Zolnikov said of the power transmission lines and system that runs into Colstrip and its coal-fired generators. 

We hope whether it is renewable energy or change to something more environmentally friendly, for example natural gas, there is a possibility for a new economic future for Colstrip.

We hope that as the state considers who will pay for the clean-up for coal that as it sets aside money for the restoration and mitigation projects, it also puts a bit of seed money into reinventing itself. 

For now, when Zolnikov thinks of Colstrip, he thinks of a steakhouse. For years, it's been selling steak to happy customers. But tastes have changed and now the choice is for a vegan diet. The customers in states like Washington and Oregon are demanding different.

"We can either try to sell them more steak, which probably won't work, or we can change our menu and offer what they want to buy," Zolnikov said.

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