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Report: WA Pays to Clean Up MT Coal Ash Contamination

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PHOTO: Montana's Colstrip Generating Facility is owned in part by electric utilities serving Washington customers. Environmental groups say those ratepayers are on the hook for costs related to the plant's massive coal ash waste ponds. Photo credit: David T. Hanson for Montana Environmental Information Center.
PHOTO: Montana's Colstrip Generating Facility is owned in part by electric utilities serving Washington customers. Environmental groups say those ratepayers are on the hook for costs related to the plant's massive coal ash waste ponds. Photo credit: David T. Hanson for Montana Environmental Information Center.
May 19, 2014

SEATTLE - Many Washington homes and businesses use power generated by burning coal, although the power plants aren't located in the state. A new report from the Sierra Club and Earthjustice focuses on coal ash waste and the trouble it is causing - not only for the environment, but for ratepayers.

It cites the Colstrip Generating Facility in Montana for persistent groundwater pollution problems. Colstrip is co-owned by some Northwest utilities, including Avista and Puget Sound Energy.

Doug Howell, senior campaign representative, Sierra Club "Beyond Coal" Campaign, says it isn't Washington's water at risk, but the consequences affect local power customers nonetheless.

"We are creating a massive economic liability with this groundwater contamination at Colstrip, Mont., and we the ratepayers are going to have to pay for it," Howell warns. "That problem is getting worse."

The report says Colstrip plant owners already paid $25 million six years ago to ranchers and residents near the Montana site affected by water pollution. The plant has more than 800 acres of waste ponds where coal ash is stored. Howell says utility customers in Washington should not have to pay for continued cleanup costs or invest more in the aging plant.

Gov. Inslee has made it a priority to phase out coal power from out-of-state. It's part of an executive order he signed last month to reduce pollution and curb climate change. Howell says that should play out in agencies like the Utilities and Transportation Commission, which regulates utility rates and services in Washington.

"The Utilities Commission is obligated to make sure that they're accounting for all the costs that could be borne by ratepayers. And what we continue to learn is that Colstrip has far more environmental damage than we ever thought, and there's a price tag with that," Howell says.

Environmental groups have filed no less than eight lawsuits in recent years about the Colstrip plant and the mine that is its primary coal source. Sierra Club surveys of Washingtonians have found most would rather see money spent on cleaner, locally-created power and on using less power through energy efficiency, Howell adds.

See the full report, "Dangerous Waters: America's Coal Ash Crisis," here.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA