Coal Ash Wednesday: Big Sky, big water contamination problem

Ranchers in Montana have been fighting coal ash leaks for years:

During the construction of the coal fired Colstrip power plants in the 70’s and 80’s, adjacent landowners to the ash settling pond sites raised concerns about contamination from coal ash into the shallow aquifers. We in agriculture rely on these aquifers (water quality and quantity) for stock water and domestic use for our homes. During the permitting process, the Board of Health required Montana Power Company to construct the ponds to be “completely sealed.” In fact, the term was underlined within the permit language. The permit also required ponds to be a “closed loop system.”

Montana Power Company then successfully petitioned the Board of Health to alter the parameters of the permit AFTER THE PERMIT WAS GRANTED.

Before we continue, it's important to note: As with many industrial operations, "best practices" technology and processes already exist with coal ash management, that greatly reduce the likelihood and severity of toxic leakage. But those best practices cost money, and avoiding having to implement them has become an art with many utilities across the US. Back to Clint's testimony:

This change allowed the ponds to have a minimal amount of “seepage.” Since the change, units 1 and 2 ash ponds in the Armells Creek watershed just north of Colstrip were discovered to be leaking. Approximately 40 homeowners filed a lawsuit against PPL and won to the tune of over $20 million. As a result of the leak, a gas station, convenience store, and local saloon were closed. After years of bad tasting water at the Moose Club, that building now sits empty and the Moose Club moved to a new building further away. Six figure damages were paid to homeowners in the area for the contamination of their wells.

The ash ponds serving the units 3 and 4 power plants are in the Rosebud Creek watershed south of town. A landowner checking water in late summer discovered water in a reservoir and witnessed a deer refusing to drink after she waded into the water. After testing the water in the reservoir and in a windmill next to it, it was discovered that both were severely contaminated with effluent from the ash ponds. The water source in the reservoir was filling from the ground up. Ranchers in the area grow concerned when sulfate levels are in the 500 to 1,000 mg/L range. The water from the ash ponds had a sulfate level of 8,100, nearly 8 times the toxic limit for cattle. This was AFTER the effluent was mixed with groundwater. If the cattle would have consumed this water, they would have died.

Both Montana Power and PPL were aware of the pond failures when they bought the plant years ago and did nothing until under pressure. The plume of contamination at the 3 and 4 ponds south of Colstrip has reached a mile from the ash pond site. This is not a “seep” and is not from “seepage” – terminology that is used by the company.

Since the discovery, monitoring wells are now used as pump-back wells, and over 800 have been drilled. The massive volume of water pumped from the shallow aquifer impacts water volume in the aquifer, and this potentially impacts landowners’ water rights. The mere number of these wells is testament that there is a larger underlying problem that needs to be dealt with.

It also needs to be mentioned that this letter represents several landowners adjacent to the leaking ponds, not just the viewpoint of myself. Many of them are in litigation with this issue and cannot talk about it.

Make no mistake, this is a huge impact to our ranching operations. We were assured by the state agencies that these impacts would not happen and trusted them to uphold the law. This has not happened. Time has proven us right. If the state of Montana cannot or will not enforce the law, then we have no choice than to ask for oversight from federal agencies. The solution is for the state agencies to enforce the laws promptly, not wait for public discovery of a problem, or a lawsuit. This is not about over-regulation of state or federal law, it is about ignoring the laws at the expense of the public and in this case, adjacent landowners. We can do better.

Clint McRae

I've spent some time in Montana, and the folks there are (for the most part) the friendliest people you'll find. They will literally give you the shirt off their back, stop if they see you broken down on the side of the road, and drive you 150 miles if that's what you need. In other words, when you piss off somebody like Clint, you have really done something.

Here in North Carolina, Duke Energy has successfully sold the idea that "cap-in-place" is a sound solution to the coal ash leachate problem. In reality, it's a sham, probably the absolute cheapest approach aside from doing nothing at all. And while we may have retaken the state's DEQ, we've lost the EPA, and the DEQ itself is constrained by Legislation passed by our GOP General Assembly. So once again, it appears our only hope is the courts.