The Colstrip Calamity: They Got the Gold, We Got the Shaft

Once again Montanans get to re-experience the all too well-known disaster of a major corporation operating an industrial facility, producing prodigious amounts of toxic and hazardous waste, and then declaring bankruptcy. After hundreds of millions of dollars in publicly funded cleanups at abandoned mines and industrial sites, one might wonder “when will our politicians learn their lesson and stop sticking Montanans with the outrageous cleanup costs?”

If you were around Montana almost a half-century ago, you might recall that the now-defunct Montana Power Company and its enormous cadre of sympathetic politicians lauded Colstrip as “the boiler room for the nation.” Oh the glorious predictions of massive wealth, cheap and abundant electricity and, of course, the promise that they would “do it right.”

And so it was Colstrip Units 1 and 2 were built, followed by Units 3 and 4. Enormous amounts of coal were mined and burned, emitting massive amounts of pollution — and not just global warming gasses causing our climate catastrophe, but mercury and a host of other toxic metals carried away on the wind from the tall stacks that eventually fall to earth, just like the downwind pollution from the Anaconda smelter.

Throughout the round-the-clock operations the highly toxic coal ash had to go somewhere — and that somewhere was a series of huge ponds that, we were assured, wouldn’t leak.

It’s black humor to recall what suckers Montana’s regulators were to ever have believed that — but then again, when you consider how many Superfund sites we have in Montana, including the nation’s largest, it’s fair to say our “regulatory” agencies have been fooled time and time again — and failed to keep Montanans safe or uphold our constitution’s guarantee of a “clean and healthful environment.”

Now comes the news that Talen, a spin-off of the out-of-state utility Pennsylvania Power and Light that bought the power plant from the former Montana Power Company, has filed for bankruptcy. With debts of $4.5 billion, whatever we hear from corporate executives about how things are going to be just fine are most likely sheer fantasy. In fact, as the company has already admitted, it is now “unable to fund its significant obligations both for environmental remediation, as well as obligations to other creditors such as its employees’ and former employees’ pension plan.”

Talen, rest assured, will go away, just like all the other corporate polluters that have declared bankruptcy and left their toxic wastes behind. And like the Montana Power Company, it looks like they may stiff their pensioners as well.

But what won’t go away are the toxic coal ash ponds — and the groundwater pollution that has already poisoned Colstrip homeowners’ wells. Now they have to use water from the Yellowstone River, which is 30 miles away and piped to the area for its industrial use by none other than Colstrip’s operators.

Given that the pollution is already severe and well known, it’s fair to ask why the Gianforte administration reduced the reclamation bond for the company by a whopping $122 million last year. Being “business friendly” is one thing —leaving Montanans on the hook through the reckless actions of state regulatory agencies is dereliction of duty.

As admitted by its owners, Colstrip is losing tens of millions of dollars every year and its shutdown is imminent. Now would be a very good time for the governor to hold the company accountable for cleaning up its huge toxic waste problem before it disappears into bankruptcy. But Gianforte is doing just the opposite. And it looks like, once again, the corporate polluters get the gold —and Montanans get the shaft.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.