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Billings Gazette (Guest Opinion): Water is sacred, tell Colstrip owners to clean up pollution

by Alaina Buffalo-Spirit
Monday, October 14, 2019

I write today to encourage you to comment on the Montana Department of Environmental Quality’s remediation plan for Colstrip’s coal ash ponds. I grew up along the Tongue River near Birney. I am a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and live in Lame Deer. I am passionate about protecting the natural gifts of this region that have sustained generations of the Cheyenne since time immemorial. This land is sacred to us. My ancestors endured unspeakable hardships traveling on foot from their forced relocation in Oklahoma to return to this sacred ground. Many sacrificed their lives to make that journey in the late 1800s. Those sacrifices were made because our history, culture, and life are found within the water, grasses, forests, and valleys of this area. I want to see these natural gifts and the people who live among them thrive for future generations.

Jobs for decades

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality is reviewing plans by the Colstrip power plant owners to clean up the plant’s leaking ash ponds. For decades, the ash ponds have been leaking toxic pollution into local groundwater, threatening agriculture, livestock, wildlife, and even humans. Water is sacrosanct; it is essential to all life. We must demand that cleanup permanently repair this damage. I am a board member of the Northern Plains Resource Council, a grassroots conservation and family agriculture group. We have spent years studying the best way to clean up these ash ponds, and in recent years focused on the job creation potential of cleanup. Many tribal members work at Colstrip or the Rosebud Mine. These jobs cannot last forever, and coal businesses across the U.S. are struggling as new energy sources emerge. This winter, Colstrip Units 1 and 2 will be closing. We need jobs in this area to help us transition to the future. Responsible cleanup is an enormous job that will take years, even decades, to complete. It requires excavating (physically removing) acres of coal ash in contact with local groundwater, drying it out through a dewatering technique, and storing it in newly built landfills. Coal ash that is not in contact with the groundwater will still require dewatering and dry storage. All cleanup requires coal ash to be stored “high and dry” above our aquifer. With one of the largest coal ash complexes in the nation, this will provide hundreds of jobs at a time they are needed most.

Comment to DEQ

This is why the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council passed a Resolution in January of this year calling on the DEQ and Colstrip power plant owners to remove the polluting coal ash, recycle what is usable, and store the material in a properly-lined landfill. The resolution also calls on the DEQ and plant owners to hire Northern Cheyenne Tribal members who currently work at Colstrip and the Rosebud Mine as well as other tribal members who seek employment cleaning up this pollution. Everyone in this region (tribal members, ranchers, coal workers from all backgrounds, and all residents) must work together to ensure proper cleanup so Rosebud County prospers into the future. We also need residents in every corner of Montana to speak up. DEQ has just announced the first of three comment periods asking for public input. Please submit a comment to DEQ and demand that Colstrip’s cleanup permanently repair our water by storing coal ash “high and dry” above the water table. We must all come together as good stewards of these irreplaceable, sacred gifts for the collective good of Montana.

Send comments to:
Montana DEQ
Attn: Sara Edinberg
P.O. Box 200901
Helena, MT 59620