When rancher Clint McRae first saw the swirling green and white ponds of arsenic, boron, mercury and lead-containing sludge 10 miles from his property, it was in a photography show at the Montana statehouse. He first thought they were abstract art, but quickly realized some were aerial photos of the ash slurry left over from burning coal at southeastern Montana’s Colstrip Steam Electric Station.
Colstrip is the second largest coal-fired power plant in the West, and significant water contamination has been happening there since 1979. Currently, its waste ponds are spewing (some say leaking) coal ash into the groundwater faster than the company can control. Even sucking 423 gallons of polluted water back into the ponds each minute hasn’t stopped underground contamination from spreading. In 2008, after people got sick from drinking water at the neighboring Moose Lodge, and people lost use of their wells, 57 residents in the nearby town of Colstrip settled with the plant’s owners for $25 million. The toxic plume is still spreading.
McRae is worried about his ranch’s water, but he’s caught between Montana’s toothless coal ash regulations and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s complete lack of oversight. “No matter where we turn, we get the finger pointing the other direction,” he says in Things of Intrinsic Worth, a short film showing the McRae family’s struggle to defend their watershed against coal ash (video below, film starts 49 seconds in).
Coal ash sludge ponds have long plagued communities in the shadows of coal-fired power plants. The environmental nonprofit, Earthjustice, keeps a tally of known spill and contamination cases from coal ash. They have recorded 208 in 37 states since 2007. Though coal ash is one of the largest waste sources in the country, it’s not federally regulated. But that could change soon. After a decades long debate, with a federal court forcing their hand, the EPA recently announced that it will take action on coal ash regulations by December 2014. Then days later, in early February, 82,000 tons of coal ash spilled into North Carolina’s Dan River, prompting almost immediate federal criminal investigation.
Coal ash is a longstanding tarnish to coal power’s luster – one that was around before the natural gas boom, the rise of renewable energy and new air quality regulations that have all taken a knock at the future of coal. But with coal ash now finally gaining federal scrutiny, it too, is joining that list of liabilities. “I think that business as usual for a lot of these coal plants often involves coal ash pollution,” says Derf Johnson, an attorney with Montana Environmental Information Center, which is pushing for greater state oversight at Colstrip. “Colstrip is not unique.”
No one really knows what it will ultimately cost to halt and remediate the ash plumes in Colstrip’s groundwater, at least not that they’ve said publicly. But for at least one power company with an interest in the plant, that extra cost was large enough that it factored into their conclusion that Colstrip is worth less than nothing.
That company, NorthWestern Energy, is one of six with a share in Colstrip. Another, PPL-Montana has been trying to get out of the state, and Northwestern has been looking to buy PPL’s 11 Montana hydroelectric dams since 2009. PPL’s share in Colstrip were also originally part of that deal. But Northwestern deemed the dams alone worth $740 million dollars, while bundling them with Colstrip lowered the entire package’s value to $400 million, the Billings Gazette reported. (PPL disputed NorthWestern’s analysis that the Colstrip shares are effectively worthless.)
Montana isn’t the only state getting power from Colstrip. As Washington is mothballing its only coal-fired power plant, Puget Sound Energy (PSE), that state’s largest utility is also the largest owner of Colstrip. The plant provides 17 percent of the utility’s power, keeping Washington tied to dirty energy. Last month, the state’s utility regulator told PSE that the company needs to do more analysis before it continues investing in Colstrip. The plant uses technologies from the ‘70s and ‘80s, and over the next four years it needs tens of millions of dollars of upgrades to meet regional haze rules and air pollution limits. And that’s all on top of the perilously permeable sludge ponds.
Meanwhile, people around Colstrip are living with the consequences of self-regulated industry. While Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality is working with PPL to oversee remediation, it’s a slow process. And it really only began in 2010, when the state proposed an enforcement action to capture the coal ash. That was finalized in 2012, but it has no firm deadlines and is drawing criticism from environmental groups for not holding the cleanup to high enough standards.
It’s never helped that the Montana state legislature has seriously limited its environmental quality department’s authority to regulate coal ash. The department has no legal standing to ask PPL for financial assurances to cover the full cost of halting and cleaning up coal ash contamination. Nor does it require pond liners, groundwater monitoring, leachate collection systems, dust controls or cleanup standards, according to the Montana Environmental Information Center. Under the plant’s 1976 contract, the state can fine Costrip's operators $10,000 per day for pollution, though that’s never happened.
In a comprehensive Center for Public Integrity series reporting on coal ash, Jeff Stant, who lobbied the EPA to regulate the waste in 2000, called the Colstrip case “one of the best examples of why you need federal regulations.” Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality considers it too soon to say how federal coal ash regulations could improve the Colstrip situation, since they haven’t been released yet.
While McRae has no desire to see the plant close – it’s vital to the area’s economy – clean water is also vital to his livelihood, and that of every other rancher. In Things of Intrinsic Worth he says, “There are things that shouldn’t be happening and don’t need to be happening. We’re trying to right a wrong here and I guess time will tell if we’re successful or not.”
Sarah Jane Keller is a High Country News correspondent. Follow her @sjanekeller. Things of Intrinsic Worth is named after one of Wallace McRae’s cowboy poems, which he recites in the film. Carly Calhoun and Sam Despeaux produced the film as part of their series on coal ash, inspired by the contamination in their home states of Kentucky and North Carolina.