BILLINGS – Cleaning up contaminated coal ash ponds at the Colstrip power complex in eastern Montana could create hundreds of high-paying jobs for decades to come, according to a year-long study released Tuesday.
The study from the Northern Plains Resource Council, called “Doing it Right II,” outlines how storing coal ash in a dry location high above the aquifer is the best outcome for both the community and the environment.
“We are very excited about this study because it does show that coal ash clean up is a huge job creator, and it is also a way to permanently remediate groundwater pollution for use of agriculture and the greater Colstrip community,” said Becky Mitchell, who chairs the Billings-based conservation group.
The study comes as Montana state lawmakers are debating whether to allow one of Colstrip’s six owners, NorthWestern Energy, to buy a larger share of the plant for $1 while passing costs onto ratepayers, with no regulatory oversight for a decade.
That proposal, Senate Bill 331, also prohibits shifting of liability of environmental cleanup of Colstrip to NorthWestern customers.
Environmentalists, who are critical of the bill, say the state needs to move past coal. Mitchell said the new study offers Colstrip a bridge to the future by tapping into its skilled workforce to clean up the contamination that has ruined the town’s groundwater.
“The ponds are leaking. The coal ash is highly toxic and the groundwater seeps up into the ponds, mixes with the coal ash and then seeps back out into the groundwater, so the groundwater is a continual source of pollution,” she said.
Cleaning up the coal ash is a huge task. The ponds cover more than 800 surface acres. The contaminated water is hazardous to humans, wildlife and livestock due to its dangerously high levels of selenium, manganese, cobalt, molybdenum and radium.
Talen Energy, the owner/operator of the Colstrip plants, has submitted a cap in place plan for the ponds, but Northern Plains representatives claim that won’t stop the pollution.
The price tag for the “high and dry” cleanup pushed by environmentalists is huge: $925 million over the next 40 years.
By comparison, Talen’s proposal is less than half that: $409 million through 2069.
As for jobs, the extensive cleanup offers direct jobs on an equally massive scale.
Talen’s proposal would amount to 91.6 yearly jobs between now and 2029.
The high and dry plan would create 218.2 yearly jobs during that same time, according to the study.
Northern Plains points out the “high and dry plan” is a permanent fix to Colstrip’s groundwater pollution while Talen’s proposed “cap in place” plan would allow for the pollution to re-emerge down the road.
As for who pays, that is the responsibility of the plant’s owners.
The Montana Department of Environmental Quality has been working with Talen on a cleanup plan and sent an email statement.
“DEQ has reviewed the Northern Plains Resource Council Report and it contemplates many of the same issues our process is evaluating,” DEQ Public Policy Director Kristi Ponozzo said. “DEQ has already requested that Talen evaluate excavation of the ash in the 1 & 2 and 3 & 4 pond areas.
Ponozzo said drafts fo the Remedy Evaluation Reports for 1 & 2 and 3 & 4 are available on the DEQ website.
“DEQ is still evaluating the different alternatives to determine what would be most effective and will take into account the information provided in the Northern Plains Report,” she stated.
Ponozzo said the DEQ expects to have a report ready and available for public comment at the end of the summer.