Protecting Wildlife from Toxic Coal Ash in Montana and Beyond

Coal Ash Sludge Ponds in Colstrip, Montana
Coal ash ponds adjacent to Pennsylvania Power’s Colstrip facility. Photo courtesy of Kestrel Aerial Services, Inc. (c) provided by Montana Environmental Information Center and Sierra Club
For decades, the coal-ash sludge ponds at the Colstrip power plant in southeastern Montana have been leaking harmful chemicals into groundwater, a blatant and well-documented violation of state and federal laws. Four years ago, nearby ranchers and residents won a $25 million legal settlement over the resulting drinking water contamination. Today, National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club and the Montana Environmental Information Center are challenging the state’s handling of the ongoing problem.

Coal ash is the collective term for the various solid remnants left over from burning coal to produce electricity.  The ash is replete with toxic constituents — arsenic, chromium, lead, mercury, boron and many others — that can wreak havoc on the environment and human health. Exposure to its toxins can lead to cancer, birth defects, gastro-intestinal illnesses, and reproductive problems.

At the Colstrip power plant, the second largest coal-fired plant west of the Mississippi River, coal ash is mixed with water and stored in sludge ponds that cover more than 500 acres near the power plant and the neighboring town.  The sludge ponds have been leaking since they were first constructed, back in the 1980s, and the plant’s operators tried to hide the leaks for years.

“It’s obvious the pollution has gone farther than was initially reported,” says Tom Ring, of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. “It’s clearly spreading.”

The highly contaminated effluent has been draining into the groundwater, polluting both ground and surface water in the vicinity of the power plant.  Dangerous chemicals such as boron have been leaking into the surrounding ground and surface water for decades.  In fact, the plumes leaking from the ponds have boron levels that are 13 times higher than established safety limits.

Heads in the Sand

Rather than penalize the current operator—PPL Montana—for ongoing contamination and order it to cease discharging and remediate the affected area, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (“DEQ”) turned a blind eye to the contamination for decades.

In 2010, the DEQ finally proposed an “enforcement” action to address the contamination: an Administrative Order of Consent (“AOC”).  NWF and partners submitted detailed comments concerning the draft AOC and its failure to address the problem and the impacts of the toxic water to wildlife, fish, plants and people surrounding the power plant. The AOC languished in draft form for over two years. Finally, in early August 2012, the DEQ finalized the agreement.

NWF and our partners have filed an appeal challenging the AOC on the grounds that the agreement does not impose any fines on the company, it fails to require PPL to cease ongoing contamination and remediate existing contamination, and it does not even establish a timetable for complying with state law. It does little to address the past decades of contamination and even less to deal with ongoing and continuous leakages.

A Widespread Problem

The situation in Colstrip, unfortunately, is not a isolated case. Coal ash contamination continues to be a problem throughout the nation. The ponds, landfills and pits where coal ash gets dumped are affecting human health and wildlife at alarming rates.

A recent article, published last month in Environmental Science and Technology, describes the environmental damage and the high economic costs passed on to taxpayers. The report documents the combined direct and indirect cost of poisoned fish and wildlife exceeds $2.3 billion, which is enough money to construct 155 landfills with state-of-the-art composite liners and leachate collection systems. This cost is projected to increase by an additional $3.85 billion over the next 50 years, an amount that would cover the construction costs of 257 landfills.

The leaking ash ponds in Colstrip and the report in Environmental Science and Technology show that the states are not capable of dealing with the massive problem of coal ash contamination. A new coal ash bill recently put forward in the Senate, S.3512, threatens to prevent adequate federal regulations that would protect people and wildlife from toxic coal ash by prohibiting the EPA from regulating the substance.

The Power of Coal: Why People in Colstrip, MT Can’t Drink the Water (via

Coal ash ponds in eastern Montana have been leaking toxins into the groundwater for decades.  This story was written by Rachel Cernansky, edited by Tonnie Katz with funding from the Spot.Us community.   ***   When the McRae family settled outside of Colstrip, Montana five generations ago, it was for…