In Case You Missed It: Colstrip Coal-Fired Power Plants Deemed A $340 Million Liability By Northwestern Energy
On the very last day of 2013 Mike Dennison wrote a story for the Billings Gazette about the sale of Pennsylvania Power and Light (PPL) hydroelectric dams in Montana to Northwestern Energy. It was a wonky energy piece that most people might skip over. However, the article had a very interesting piece of information. In documents filed with the Montana Public Service Commission (PSC), NorthWestern Energy made it abundantly clear that they did not want to buy PPL's coal fired power plants at Colstrip. Not only did they not want to buy them, NorthWestern viewed the coal fired boilers as a major financial liability. Dennison reports,
In fact, NorthWestern attached a negative value to the Colstrip plants, worried that any buyer eventually would have to shut down the plants and bear the cost of “remediating” the sites. Northwestern Energy offered $740 million to by hydro dams from PPL Montana but lowered its offer to $400 million if the deal included purchase of Colstrip as well, $340 million less due largely to the plant’s environmental risks.It will be no surprise to the folks that live in Colstrip that the land the plant is on and the surrounding area will probably be declared a superfund site after the the plant closes due to the major aquifer pollution from Colstrip's coal ash ponds. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the agency in charge of regulating these ponds under Montana's Major Facilities Siting Act, and PPL prefer to use the term seepage when referring to the toxic water that is entering the aquifer from the ponds. Seepage, to most people, means a small amount. The low estimate calculated from DEQ's own documents is that at least 169 gallons per minute and a high estimate of 281 gallons per minute are "seeping" from coal ash storage ponds 3 & 4. The low estimate equates to 10,140 gallons per hour and 243,360 gallons per day, or nearly 1.7 million gallons per week.
Instead of coal ash ponds seeping into the aquifer, it is more apt to say that PPL is using the aquifer under Colstrip to store their coal ash waste.As of 2011, PPL had drilled over 800 monitoring wells, which you can view here (Monitoring Well Map), around the plant to monitor the spread of the plume and pump back the contaminated water. We know that there are more being drilled daily but those details are being kept from the public. The coal ash ponds have caused such widespread damage that PPL and the other plant owners were sued back in 2008. The plant owners paid $25 million to settle with 57 residents. DEQ continues to allow PPL to go about business as usual, putting humans and livestock health at risk. The real kicker is that DEQ has the authority to fine PPL $10,000 a day for contaminating the water, as well as force the company to clean up and seal the ponds. But they won't do either. DEQ has said they have no intention of enforcing the fine. I'm not surprised that NorthWestern saw the coal fired power plants in Colstrip as a major financial liability. Any rational person would, and since corporations are people now, it seems like Northwestern is a smart one. To read a detailed account of the coal ash problems at Colstrip, there is a great article by Rachel Cernasky entitled, Why People In Colstrip Can't Drink the Water. Another investigative report about coal ash featuring Colstrip by the Center For Public Integrity can be found here: Coal Ash: The Hidden Story Montana Department of Environmental Quality Colstrip site can be accessed here. EPA lists Colstrip as hazardous coal ash site