PRESS RELEASE: Final public comment period opens for groundwater pollution cleanup at Colstrip

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:  September 22, 2020

Link to DEQ Colstrip page with information on the coal ash pond comment period for Units 1&2:

BILLINGS, Mont. – The Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is taking public comment on long-term plans to close and remediate a waste coal ash impoundment associated with Units 1&2 of eastern Montana’s Colstrip Power Plant. Coal ash is the waste product of coal-fired power plants and is stored in enormous “ponds” outside the power plants.

The 1&2 ponds cover 330 acres and are up to 100 feet deep. DEQ estimates daily leakage of polluted water at 43,000 gallons. The most significant problem with the 1&2 ponds is that the bottoms of the ash pits are in direct contact with groundwater, polluting the aquifer with sulfates, boron, selenium, and other heavy metals. Colstrip’s ash ponds have been impacting local groundwater for decades, creating a pollution plume in the local aquifer that extends roughly a mile out from the ponds.

“We’ve worked on this issue for years, studying what cleanup methods are best for workers, ranchers, taxpayers, and the entire community,” said Jeanie Alderon, a Birney rancher and chair of Northern Plains. “Full excavation – removing all of the coal ash and storing it in newly created landfills – is the only way to ensure clean water for ranchers, good jobs for workers, and stable property values for everyone in Rosebud County.”

Northern Plains released a report in 2019 showing that responsible clean-up, which would involve excavating the coal ash from the ground and placing it in newly constructed landfills, would create up to 218 full-time jobs  that could be sustained for 10 years. Their research also concluded that this method can provide permanent repair to groundwater pollution.

The cleanup plans, submitted to DEQ by Colstrip owner/operator Talen Energy in early September, include proposals that range from simply “capping” the waste in place below the ground toward more robust scenarios where all, or part, of the coal ash is physically excavated. Excavation would require digging out coal ash and hauling the waste for storage in a new, lined landfill built nearby on Talen Energy property.

Alderson is concerned that Talen has proposed cleanup alternatives that fail to address likely future pollution by the ash left trapped in the ground.

“I hope everyone will take a moment to submit a public comment to DEQ asking them to support Alternative 10, which is full removal of all coal ash from the 1&2 ponds,” Alderson said, referring to the differing cleanup alternatives submitted by Talen. “Some of the proposed alternatives leave this toxic coal ash in the ground, which risks further groundwater pollution and creates far fewer jobs when we’re going to need them the most. The future of this entire community is at stake. Farmers, ranchers, workers, the Northern Cheyenne,  business and property owners – all of us are depending on DEQ to ensure cleanup is done right.”

“Colstrip’s owners have a legal obligation to clean up this problem,” concluded Alderson. “Montana can’t afford another Superfund site, and no one wants that for Rosebud County. If we do this right, we have an opportunity to build a bridge to the future ensuring prosperity for our children and grandchildren in Colstrip and the larger region.”

The DEQ will be accepting public comment on the plans for Units 1&2 through October 26.  After the comment period, DEQ will move to approve or modify one of the proposed cleanup plan alternatives. Once a plan is approved, the state will then move forward and collect bonds from the owners to cover the cost of the project.