Judge says waste leak from coal plant ponds is ‘alarming’

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A state judge expressed alarm at the estimated 200 million gallons of contaminated water seeping annually from leaky ash-storage ponds at a Montana power plant serving customers across the Pacific Northwest — a problem that's persisted for years after the company and state officials said they were addressing it.

A 2012 deal between Montana environmental regulators and the Pennsylvania-based manager of Colstrip Steam Electric Station was intended to clean up decades of contamination of surrounding water tables.

The agreement, known as an administrative order on consent, came after the plant's six owners paid $25 million in a separate settlement to Colstrip residents whose water was fouled by the plant's ash ponds.

District Judge Robert Deschamps said he found it "alarming" that 380 gallons of wastewater continues to seep from the ponds every minute. That's equivalent to nearly 200 million gallons a year.

Claims by plant manager Talen Energy that the seepage was being effectively controlled "is clearly a disputed fact," Deschamps wrote in a Wednesday ruling.

"What is a reasonable amount of time in which the (state) should act versus conduct further study, given there has already been 30 years of seepage and the (administrative order) itself was seven years in the making?" Deschamps wrote.

The judge rejected arguments from Montana Department of Environmental Quality officials that they were appropriately handling the matter. That means environmentalists can proceed with a lawsuit challenging the 2012 agreement, which set few deadlines for action and could entail years of further study.

Talen spokesman Todd Martin said in an email that the company was abiding by the agreement to investigate and remediate the ash-pond leaks. He said the agreement "established a formal and comprehensive process" to remediate the seepage.

Opponents warned that Colstrip could close long before Talen cleans up the problem.

"This is our last chance to right the ship before the companies leave town," said attorney Jenny Harbine. "We have literally rooms full of monitoring data documenting an ongoing and increasing groundwater problem. We don't need more documentation of the problem. We need a solution," she said.

Harbine is with the environmental law firm Earthjustice representing plaintiffs National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club and Montana Environmental Information Center.

A spokeswoman for the Montana DEQ could not immediately comment on Deschamp's ruling.

Talen is seeking to get out of the plant within two years. Meanwhile, Colstrip co-owners Puget Sound Energy, Portland General Electric and PacifiCorp are considering shutting down at least two of the plant's four electricity-generating units in coming years, part of a transition away from coal-fired electricity by utilities.

In 1976, the Montana Board of Natural Resources and Conservation approved an expansion of Colstrip on the condition that the wastewater ponds be sealed. The board said at the time that the plant would not threaten ground and surface water supplies.

The plant's prior operator, Montana Power, kept such problems hidden for years before notifying the community. By then, water tainted with boron had caused stomach ailments, although no serious illnesses were reported.

Talen's predecessor, PPL Montana, upgraded the material used to line the coal ash ponds and installed two plants that dry out coal ash waste from the power generator, reducing the amount of water involved. The company acknowledged there would always be some leakage.


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