Op-Ed: Cleanup jobs in Colstrip needed now more than ever

This op-ed by member Jeanie Alderson was first printed in the Billings Gazette on Jun 30, 2019. It was also published in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the Missoulian, and the Montana Standard.

Northern Plains member and Birney, MT rancher Jeanie Alderson

The recent announcement of the closure of Colstrip Units 1 and 2 should concern all who live and work in Rosebud County. We will all feel the impact of this closure.

My parents were founding members of Northern Plains Resource Council back in 1972 when the group was formed to address the challenges that exist between coal and cattle country. Ever since, ranchers and coal workers have been intertwined in this region’s history. Even though we have very different perspectives, we can find common ground when it comes to preserving the vitality of our communities.

That’s why coal workers and Northern Plains members have worked together researching how to keep good jobs in Colstrip while cleaning up local groundwater. Now that Talen Energy, the power plant’s owner/operator, has decided to close Units 1 and 2 by year’s end (three years earlier than required) it’s more important than ever that we finalize a cleanup plan that ensures a prosperous future for Colstrip workers, ranchers, the Northern Cheyenne tribe and property owners.

Colstrip has over 800 acres of coal ash ponds that store the byproduct of burning coal for energy. These massive ash ponds hold heavy metals and other contaminants that are dangerous to humans, wildlife, and livestock. Unfortunately, they are leaking into groundwater creating a large underground pollution plume that eventually makes its way into nearby streams and creeks.

Talen has tried to keep this pollution from spreading even further with a system of pumps that suck up some of the 200 million gallons of contaminated water leaking each year, but this is only a temporary, partial remedy. We need a permanent solution that fully repairs local groundwater. Not only is this the right thing to do, it’s required by law.

The good news is that we know how to permanently clean up this pollution, and it’s a huge job creator. Earlier this year Northern Plains released our second report on this issue, Doing It Right II: Job Creation Through Colstrip Cleanup. This research, which draws on expert analysis from licensed Montana engineers, hydrologists, and economists, finds that the methods needed to permanently fix groundwater will create hundreds of jobs that pay well at all skill levels. The key is to use a “high and dry” approach that digs up any coal ash in contact with groundwater, dries it out through a dewatering technique, and stores it above the water table in newly built landfills.

This is a big job that will take many years — even decades — to complete. The local workforce already has many of the skills needed to complete this long term, industrial work.

Doing cleanup right will cost more than temporary measures that leave Rosebud County polluted. We’ve seen what happens when companies close shop and leave taxpayers holding the bag. Montana cannot afford another Superfund site, and Colstrip shouldn’t become one. The power plant is jointly owned by six companies who have generated billions of dollars over decades. They have the money to uphold their legal obligation; we just need to make them do it. Whether that money comes from shareholders, enormous executive salaries, or elsewhere, the bottom line is that taxpayers are not responsible for these business costs.

The early closure of Units 1 and 2 does not mean the early demise of Colstrip. Workers can maintain good jobs and good pay while ranchers, property owners, the Northern Cheyenne tribe and everyone in Rosebud County can rely on clean water. Contact Gov. Steve Bullock and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to let them know Colstrip’s owners must pay for cleanup that permanently fixes local groundwater. Let’s do this right.

Jeanie Alderson is a rancher from Birney and board member of the Northern Plains Resource Council.