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Settlement Announced to Clean Up Colstrip Coal Ash Ponds

A coal ash sludge pond at the Colstrip coal-fired power plant. (Alexis Bonogofsky)
A coal ash sludge pond at the Colstrip coal-fired power plant. (Alexis Bonogofsky)
July 22, 2016

COLSTRIP, Mont. - The dirty coal ash ponds at Colstrip that have been polluting the aquifer for decades will be replaced with a safer system by 2022, part of a settlement filed in court on Thursday. The owners have agreed to dehydrate the sludge in the bottom ash pits from Units 3 and 4 and dispose of it by 2018. And they will dry up their scrubber sludge by 2022.

Attorney Jenny Harbine with the environmental law firm Earthjustice helped negotiate the settlement. She said the plant will now have to convert to a dry disposal system for its toxic coal ash sludge.

"Once they do that conversion, they should largely stop the leaking from the impoundments which to date have been to the tune of about 200 million gallons per year," she said.

Colstrip's owners have documented a huge plume of contamination going back 30 years that renders the groundwater unsuitable to drink and hazardous to use for agriculture. In 2008, the owners paid $25 million to settle a lawsuit filed by residents.

In 2012 Earthjustice filed suit on behalf of the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation and the Montana Environmental Information Center to invalidate Colstrip's agreement with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

"That agreement amounted to a sweetheart deal, which really deferred any real action to clean up this groundwater mess and instead just called for an indefinite period of further study," she added.

A separate lawsuit, settled last week, announced the closure of Colstrip's two older facilities, called Unit 1 and 2 by 2022. The owners still have to file a plan with the Montana DEQ to clean up the existing groundwater contamination caused by Colstrip's waste.

Suzanne Potter, Public News Service - MT