Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Coal Ash Waste From Colstrip's Retired Units To Be Excavated

The four stacks of the Colstrip coal fired power plant seen from a distance through a chain link fence.
Kayla Desroches
Yellowstone Public Radio
The Colstrip Steam Electric Station pictures on Oct. 2, 2020.

The state of Montana this week announced the operator of the Colstrip coal fired power plant will fully remove coal ash ponds that have been leaking millions of gallons of wastewater a year from the plant’s two now retired units.

Environmental groups say the state made the right choice.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality’s decision marks the end of an eight year process that began when DEQ brought enforcement action against power plant operator Talen Energy for contamination at Colstrip.

DEQ project manager Sara Edinberg says the chosen clean up method excavates toxic coal ash from ponds at Units 1 and 2 that stretch over 254 acres, or the equivalent of roughly 200 football fields.

Edinberg says Talen will dry the waste and store it in a new, lined holding area on its property.

"That was really the only alternative that we could reliably say, ‘Yes, this is going to permanently stop that contact between the ash and groundwater,'" Edinberg says.

DEQ says four of the six ponds at Units 1 and 2 have been leaking millions of gallons of toxic waste into the groundwater for decades.

Site contamination includes elevated levels of selenium, boron and sulfate. DEQ says while the wastewater is not affecting the environment or humans, Talen installed groundwater wells because a high rate of sulfate can harm livestock that drink the water there. Studies suggest sulfate can cause dietary and neurological issues in animals.

Talen is required to put down $285.4 million dollars for clean up at Units 1 and 2. Edinberg says that brings the total clean up cost at the plant to $485 million and the goal is to complete clean up within thirty years.

“DEQ has already picked remedies for the other ponds. This is actually the last of the ponds that need to be addressed," Edinberg says.

The agency in 2018 approved clean up at the plant site and earlier this year approved drying out and capping waste ponds at Colstrip Units 3 and 4, which are still operating.

DEQ in June approved plans to address the current groundwater contamination at Units 1 and 2 by installing wells and flushing out the groundwater. Edinberg says Tuesday’s decision closes the source of the contamination at the two retired units.

“It’s gonna allow this area to permanently meet clean up criteria into the future," she says.

Talen’s preferred alternative was to partially remove the ash and store it in an existing impoundment. A Talen spokesperson said the company is reviewing DEQ’s decision and is not in a position to comment.

Edinberg says DEQ’s chosen solution calling for Talen to install a new landfill to store the ash is pricier but more permanent.

It was also the clean up that environmental groups like Northern Plains Resource Council and Montana Environmental Information Center advocated for.

Rancher and Northern Plains chair Jeanie Alderson says the council put a lot of time into researching the clean up options Talen presented.

"This one is the most sound for ranchers in the area, for the workers who hope to have some good paying jobs," Alderson says.

A Talen Energy study shows the clean up could bring 130 jobs and roughly $16.5 million in hourly wages to the area over 12 years.

DEQ’s decision comes during a transitional period with Montana governorship passing from Democrat Steve Bullock to Republican Greg Gianforte. Bullock first won his seat as governor in 2012, the same year DEQ brought enforcement against Talen Energy for leaking waste ponds at Colstrip.

Montana Environmental Information Center deputy director Anne Hedges says MEIC is happy about the Bullock Administration's choice.

“I think that Bullock is saying that his legacy matters and that this is the kind of note that he wants to go out on, which is, we are going to clean this place up the first time, we are going to get sufficient bonds to make sure that Montanans are not left holding the bag down the line when these company just disappear," Hedges says.

Hedges says MEIC is less happy with the clean up plan at Colstrip’s active Units 3 and 4 ash ponds, which calls for drying out contaminants from the ash ponds and then capping them.

DEQ’s Sara Edinberg says the difference is that the Unit 3 and 4 ponds are built above water level. She says the Units 1 and 2 ponds are at water level, which is what calls for the more aggressive clean up measure of complete removal.

While Hedges is happy the DEQ made its decision, she says “I just wish they had done it in a more timely fashion so that it wouldn’t bleed into the next administration.”

Talen Energy has a month from Nov. 17 to object to DEQ’s decision.

If Talen does appeal, the plan could land in front of new DEQ leadership under the Gianforte administration.

A spokesperson for Gianforte said, "Governor-elect Gianforte believes Colstrip is vital to Montana's energy infrastructure and future. Any agency decisions should be based on facts. There's a process that’s in place, which the parties will have to work through.”

Kayla writes about energy policy, the oil and gas industry and new electricity developments.