The Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) approved a plan today for excavating – physically digging up – 6.7 million cubic yards of coal ash stored outside the Colstrip Power Plants in southeastern Montana. Coal ash is the waste product of coal-fired power plants and is stored in enormous “ponds” outside the power plants. DEQ’s plan will address coal ash associated with Units 1&2 and is the first major coal ash excavation project approved in the West.
The 1&2 ponds cover 330 acres and are up to 100 feet deep. DEQ estimates leakage rates of contaminated water at 43,000 gallons per day. The most significant problem with the 1&2 ponds is that the bottoms of the ash pits are in direct contact with groundwater, contaminating the aquifer with sulfates, boron, selenium, and other toxic 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. The leaking contaminants are harmful to humans, livestock, and wildlife.
“Responsible development is something we as landowners were promised when these plants were going up.” said Clint McRae, a Colstrip-area rancher and member of Northern Plains. “We’ve been waiting for plant owners to meet that responsibility for forty years now. Moving coal ash into lined landfills high above the aquifer is the only way to make good on that promise and protect agriculture in the area. We’re glad to see a plan approved that requires full removal of coal ash from these particular ponds.”
Northern Plains Resource Council 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, provided proposals that included 1) “capping-in-place” all of the waste to be buried below the ground permanently, 2) excavating part of the waste directly in contact with groundwater, or 3) the most robust scenario where all of the coal ash is physically excavated. The latter, most robust excavation alternative, was approved.
“The reason Montanans have dealt with the sad stories from Butte, Libby, and Zortman Landusky is because companies are allowed to leave town after making billions of dollars,” said Jeanie Alderson, Northern Plains Chair and Birney rancher.
“This has long-term consequences for community health and local economies. Ultimately, the companies’ responsibilities become the burden of taxpayers,” continued Alderson. “We are glad the DEQ is finally bringing these ponds into compliance. Ranchers, workers, the Northern Cheyenne, business and property owners – all of us are depending on DEQ to ensure cleanup is done right, and we are glad to see this first step approved.”
Dustin Ogdin, Northern Plains Communications Director, (406) 850-6227