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  

18 Comments on “In Case You Missed It: Colstrip Coal-Fired Power Plants Deemed A $340 Million Liability By Northwestern Energy

  1. Your articles are littered with factually inaccurate statements and plenty of opinion. I was raised in colstrip from the mid 80’s to early 2000’s and I still keep up with what is happening. You articles are unbelievably misleading.

  2. Brent, what exactly is inaccurate in what I wrote? All you have to do is read the reports from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. None of this is a secret.

  3. I work at the plant. I deal with the so called toxic water your talking about, people like you are why this plant is a “liability”. I wonder why it is so hard to figure out if these untruths keep up you will no longer be able to spout your drivel because you will have no power to do it. And Montana DEQ, just like the EPA are controlled by environmental extremist who instead of doing a job of just keeping the air and water clean, have made it their lives goal to close the only reliable source of power in the USA down. I get tired of the drivel.

  4. Everything written here is cited, meaning there is evidence to back it up. I’m dying to hear about how the ash ponds have not been leaking like a siv for 20 years, or maybe how there are not 800 monitoring and pump back wells trying to contain the plume of contaminated water. Maybe there was no settlement and it was all part of a grand conspiracy by the courts, government, and company to….ah…make the company and the government look bad? Because that makes sense, right? Mark my words, if the owners do not fix this problem and pay to clean up the groundwater, this will be a superfund site that the rest of us pay for every april when we pay our taxes.

  5. Being a Colstrip resident for nearly 30 years I can’t help but wonder just what your source of information is. Yes, there are problems, but are they greater than any place else? I truly doubt it. Colstrip is a great little community and most of us enjoy it. The good thing about Colstrip is that just like any other town, if you don’t like it, you can always leave. If you don’t live here then what is the fuss about?

  6. Coallady, I have put links to sources in the blog post but you can also go to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality website and read through their site reports and see the maps. And, I’m not saying anything about the community of Colstrip. I’m just talking about the coal ash ponds and how PPL and DEQ are dealing with the contamination. Here is the link to DEQ’s site:

  7. Perhaps you are correct in your response to Brent, but I had the displeasure of reading your article as well. I certainly hope you do not fancy yourself a journalist as this is poorly written at best. I might point to your first supporting point; it’s a quote of a report a reporter reported. Have you no journalistic acumen or ambition to create your own leads; your own story? After reading the first paragraph it turns into something like: “blah, bad people, blah, blah, look at this link, blah blah told you so.” Better luck next time 😉

  8. Joseph, I don’t fancy myself a journalist. I never said I was a journalist. I work for the National Wildlife Federation, which I explicitly say in the About Page. Thanks for the writing critique though. If you find what I write to be boring and repetitive, feel free to not read my blog. Thank god it’s a free country where we can choose what we read and what we don’t!

  9. Alexis, what would be an acceptable cost for the benefits that Colstrip Power Plant provides? The reason I ask this question is each time I read an article like the one you have posted above I wonder how an individual can get so narrowly focused on an issue that they continently forget about stepping back and looking at the whole issue from a broad perspective.

  10. Alexis,
    I guess your facts may be true as you have found in your mind. But when you wake up in the morning do you turn a light on? When you cook do you use power? Do you wash your clothes by hand or washing machine? I guess my point is not but a week ago a certain state next door had a MAJOR oil spill/fire. Maybe you could go write about that. So when they close the plants n Colstrip will you support the families that lose their jobs? Probably not. I am upset because I grew up there. It’s people’s life and support for families. Maybe your next write up should be about the power those plants supply…I don’t see you bashing other cities about issues and ground water. I will give you a list of way worse places. Oh wait no I won’t you might want them shut down. I understand you can write what you want but maybe go to Colstrip and look around and see hat the Plant has done for that town. And maybe even yours.

  11. I have worked on a pond or two , they were by search pond, instead of turning left into search pond you keep going straight. The contractor was out of Washington and when I asked him if these would ever leak , he said ” well eventually ,” I laughed it off and shook my head . I didn’t know then what they were for but none of the employees of the company would not even go near the ponds that were all ready filled. The forms of energy have changed over time in the electric industry . Change is inevitable , Energy and how to get it? it should not give anyone cancer or sickness. It should not divide people . It should not be a form of oppression. It should not hurt anyone in anyway .

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  13. Thank you Alexis. What a great post on a truly monumentally important issue. Unfortunately our not to distant history is littered with stories about how bad coal ash waste is. As someone who lives in a community who counts colstrip coal burning as around 30% of our power portfolio, I am ashamed and burdened with the fact that our power consumption will ultimately lead to a disaster for another community.

  14. This environmentalist writer has forgotten to mention that Northwestern Energy already owns a third of Unit 4 in Colstrip. She has left a lot of other info out of her one-sided article.

  15. First and foremost, let me say that Colstrip is actually a very nice community. The people are nice and the country surrounding it is stunning. Really, its one of the most gorgeous landscapes I have ever seen. Reading these comments does not reflect most of the people I have met in Colstrip. I keep seeing people say ” You left out alot of information”, but what? What information?

    Do we not all agree in the concept of “you break it, you buy it?” Since when does the fact that PPL provides good jobs allow them to pollute land with toxic elements like Boron, hide it, allow people to drink it out of their wells, and not have to pay to clean it up? I’m puzzled. If I wander outside and dump a bunch of boron or arsinic laiden water next to someone’s well, I’m pretty sure that I’m going to have to pay to clean it up, no matter how many jobs I create. And if they don’t, who should? Should we as tax payers be responsible to pay for a clean up that not only could have been prevented, but could have been mitigated years ago?

    No one here is demanding Colstrip shut down immediately. Colstrip will eventually shut down, we all know that, and it will be because:
    a. It will become too expensive to operate.
    b. Its primary customers on the west coast, where most the power goes, want cleaner forms of energy, and if Montana doesn’t provide it someone else will. Gone are the days when we can tell them what kind of power they are going to get.

    Its already the most expensive power that NW sells, speaking of their ownership in Unit 4. Again, that’s another verifiable fact.

    I know alot of folks in Cosltrip, well hell, most in Colstrip, are reliant on the coal industry. That industry is going through serious changes right now. I’m sorry for you all that it is happening, but this is the nature of our economy. Its time to start giving thought to what kind of Colstrip you all want to live in when the plant is gone, because 10-20 years from now, it probably will be and that is not far away in the whole scheme of things. Colstrip could be a gold mine; all the utility lines, substations, unreclaimed land, sunlight and windy bluffs could make for a real energy revolution there. But it will require creative thought, time, and investment. If the state of Kentucky is in the process of planning for a Kentucky without a coal industry, I think Montana should start thinking about the same. Right now, we have that time. Wait another 5 years to start thinking about it, and you won’t. Someone else will be ready to send their power to WA, OR, and CA.

    This is not a zero sum game. With change comes opportunity if people are willing to sieze it. Fate favors the bold.

    • Mike, you give no discussion as to what will replace the power we generate now. One discussion is power density and footprint. We cannot turnover the power generated at Colstrip to wind or turbines that are at best 30% efficient. How many thousands of acres would it take to replace 2 Gigawatts of electricity with these items?
      We could change it to gas but there is no pipeline…


  16. I find it interesting that people upset with this blog have to resort to attacking your writing and “journalism” skills rather than providing any of those “facts” they say you consistently overlook. It would be great if people could actually add to the conversation by providing references and information rather than vitriol. We all love Montana and we need to have a conversation that advances the well-being of our state! Disagree? Fine! But tell us WHY and cite your sources as this author has done.

  17. Regarding power plant aerosol emissions and their impact on climate, we have tracked enormous clouds carrying tons of moisture that poured into Calgary on June 20th, 2013 – dropping 43 mm of rain that day, which was the maximum for that month. With winds coming from the south (according to our data), those clouds originated from Montana near the Colstrip Power Plant, and were pushed north west into Calgary. See proof here:

    In June 2012, we had the same amount of rainfall as in June 2013, but no flood, because apparently, the city lifted the floodgates in time. Ironically, those clouds also originated from Montana, according to archived satellite photos. Our PhD researchers fail to address these issues: the impact of power plant emissions on cloud formations, and their impact on our weather. I have found only one study to date:

    And we can thank Dan Robinson for his hard work in storm-chasing and photographs of power plant-induced storms:

    We will be conducting a study on the historical flooding experienced in the Foothills of Alberta (Elbow and Bow River). Could you provide us with more information on when Colstrip Power plant was built, including other major plants in Montana?