Northern Plains has organized for years to ensure responsible and robust cleanup of Colstrip’s leaking coal ash ponds. These ash ponds have been contaminating groundwater at a massive rate threatening local agriculture, wildlife, and property values. In September, we learned that the “high and dry” approach we have been pushing for – which includes excavating the toxic coal ash and placing it in a newly constructed landfill – has been finalized as the cleanup plan for Colstrip’s oldest ash ponds, the ash ponds associated with Colstrip Units 1 and 2. Both units have already shut down.
In November 2020, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) issued an order requiring that the ash ponds associated with Units 1 and 2 be fully excavated, with the ash dug up and deposited in a lined landfill away from groundwater. Talen Energy, the operator of the Colstrip power plant and entity responsible for ash pond cleanup, contested DEQ’s order, invoking a dispute resolution clause that allowed the company to attempt to negotiate a different settlement with DEQ.
In the summer of 2021, DEQ and Talen came to an agreement that still (kind of ) required full excavation of the toxic coal ash, but allowed Talen one last opportunity to design a weaker cleanup plan for possible consideration in two years. Since that time, we fully expected that Talen would make a case for a weaker form of cleanup. Throughout the process, Northern Plains has been watchdogging DEQ and even met with the Environmental Protection Agency to make sure the state upheld appropriate cleanup obligations for Talen and the other companies with Colstrip ownership stakes that have generated billions of dollars from the power plant over decades.
Colstrip area rancher Wally McRae (left) shares a moment with IBEW Local 1638 member Bret Bowen (right). This Colstrip victory benefitted greatly from research collaborations between Northern Plains, AFLCIO, and IBEW 1638 about the job creation that results from robust cleanup.
Finally, in September 2023, Talen sent DEQ a letter officially stating they were not going to pursue a weaker cleanup plan. After years of diligent work, we won!
This is great news for local ranchers, workers, property owners, and Tribal members. Northern Plains’ extensive jobs study, “Doing It Right,” showed that this cleanup will lead to hundreds of good-paying, industrial jobs that will last for over a decade. These jobs will serve as a bridge to the future of Colstrip’s economy while also protecting the irreplaceable resources we all reply upon. Thank you to the hundreds of Northern Plains members who submitted comments, made calls, and organized tenaciously for years to secure this landmark victory!
Our work is still cut out for us to make sure excavation is done right, and to ensure that thorough cleanup happens for the remaining ash ponds. For now though, please join us for a celebration of this major victory on Saturday evening, November 11 during the Northern Plains Annual Meeting! For details about this victory party, contact Bronya at (406) 248-1154 or firstname.lastname@example.org.