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Montana reduces coal ash cleanup bond at power plant

June 30, 2021 GMT

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — The state of Montana has reduced the cleanup bond it is requiring to guarantee the cleanup of coal ash near the Colstrip power plant in southeastern Montana, but the state is still requiring a full cleanup.

Talen Energy appealed after the state set the bond at $285 million in late 2020. Talen, which operates the plant, argued state environmental regulators chose the most costly cleanup method, when less costly methods would work.

Earlier this week, the Department of Environmental Quality agreed to reduce the bond by at least $120 million, The Billings Gazette reported.

But the state is still requiring that all of the coal ash be removed and stored in a dry area. Currently, about 6.7 million cubic yards (5.1 million cubic meters) of coal ash is stored in waste ponds. Coal ash is the waste left after burning coal and contains heavy metals that can be dissolved by water.

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Environmental groups filed a lawsuit more than a decade ago seeking the cleanup of the ash ponds, which were contaminating area groundwater.

Derf Johnson with the Montana Environmental Information Center said he is concerned the new bond amount won’t be enough to complete the cleanup.

Under the agreement, Talen Energy has agreed to begin drawing up plans to meet the state’s ash removal requirements, but the company can also pursue other cleanup alternatives. The proposal could be changed if new technology found beneficial uses for coal ash, or if state or federal regulations changed.

The coal-ash ponds complex that contains waste from the first two units of the Colstrip plant involves nine waste ponds that have leaked about 200 million gallons (757 million liters) of contaminated water into the ground every year for more than 30 years. The water contains boron, sulfates, selenium and heavy metals.

Combined with the ash ponds serving the other two units of the Colstrip plant, the pollution complex spans 800 acres (324 hectares) with an estimated cleanup cost of $400 million to $700 million, the Gazette reports.

Talen Energy operates the power plant, so it was negotiating the cleanup. Other companies with ownership — NorthWestern Energy, Puget Sound Energy, Avista, Portland General Electric and PacificCorp — are also responsible for part of the cost.