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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.

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Coal Ash Contaminates Big Sky Country

By Clint McRae

This essay is in response to: How toxic is coal ash, the waste material left after coal is burned? How does it come to poison the waters and dust the land in communities across the nation? And what can be done to prevent further toxic contamination?

I am a 4th generation rancher in southeastern Montana. My great-grandfather emigrated from Scotland and settled along the banks of Rosebud Creek in the 1880’s -- the same tributary General George Custer navigated on his way to the infamous battle 60 miles west. The main reason my great-grandfather settled here was because of the abundance of water, both groundwater and surface water, the lifeblood of any ranch.

Clint McRae’s Montana ranch has been contaminated by coal ash.

I live in the shadows of four coal-fired power plants constructed in the ‘70s and ‘80s in the small town of Colstrip. Ranchers in the area raised concerns about impacts to groundwater when we learned there would be numerous coal ash settling ponds constructed. We were assured by the Board of Health, the permitting agency at the time, that these ponds would be lined with impermeable materials and would not leak. The permit was clear that the ponds were to be “completely sealed” (the term was underlined for emphasis) and it would be a “closed loop system.” After the ponds were constructed, Montana Power Company (MPC) successfully petitioned the Board of Health to change the parameters of the permit to allow some “seepage.”  We were adamant that these changes not be made. One of the board members told us that if the ponds leaked, the plants would be shut down and the state agencies would strictly enforce the law. We were lied to.

Since then, MPC sold the plants to Pennsylvania Power and Light (PP&L), and the Board of Health is now officially called the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (MTDEQ).

In 2009, 57 homeowners won a $25 million lawsuit (Ankney vs PP&L) against PP&L for water contamination in the wells of homes and businesses just north of town. The Moose Club was closed and relocated; the original building is in the process of being torn down. The Sinclair gas station, convenience store, and adjacent 19th Hole Saloon also closed because their well was contaminated.  The coal ash ponds had been leaking into the water supply as far back as 1979. Another pond constructed in the ‘90s has failed 18 times.

South of town in the Cow Creek drainage, which is in the Rosebud Creek watershed, the ash ponds have also been leaking. These ponds serve the two larger power plants. The “pond” site is roughly 360 acres and is 80 feet deep. A cousin of mine who is also a neighbor discovered the leak when he noticed a reservoir that had filled with water. He thought it a bit odd that a reservoir would be full in August. He witnessed a deer come out of the timber, wade out to her chest, and leave without drinking. When the water in the reservoir and the adjacent windmill was tested, we understood why:  It had, among other constituents, a sky-high level for sulfates. We grow concerned when sulfate levels exceed 2,000 ppm. The sulfate level of this water, even after being diluted with groundwater, was over 8,000 ppm, several times the toxic threshold for cattle. Since cattle cannot consume this water, we can’t graze them in those pastures. This hurts the financial viability of a ranch. The wells also contained boron, which does not naturally occur in our groundwater, indicating that the contamination came specifically from coal ash. The ash ponds were leaking to the point that the reservoir had filled from the ground up. The plume of contamination had flowed nearly a mile to reach our lands. A lawsuit has been filed and is pending at this time.

In 2009, PP&L and the Montana DEQ crafted an Administrative Order on Consent to clean up these ponds. These meetings were held behind closed doors. In February 2010, several adjacent landowners attended a very poorly advertised public meeting in Colstrip sponsored by the DEQ on the agreement. We testified forcefully on the issue, saying that the adjacent landowners should have been notified that this “agreement” process was taking place, and we should have participated in it. Instead, our only involvement was the formality of a public meeting after the “agreement” was reached. We were told that our comments would be processed, and a final decision would be forthcoming. That was two years ago, and to date, the final document has not been released.

This past summer, the adjacent landowners met with the DEQ and PP&L to try to resolve our legitimate concerns. We learned that PP&L has drilled 800 wells in the area. Some are monitoring wells, some are pump-back wells. The pump-back wells pump not only the effluent that has leaked out, but large amounts of groundwater. This water is pumped back into the ash ponds, and is re-used or atomized (evaporated into the air). We believe that this is a blatant violation of Montana water law. We do not believe that this honors the “closed loop system” required by law.  And we believe that the contamination of stockwater wells nearly a mile away is no seep. This is a pond failure, and the DEQ is shirking its public trust responsibilities by allowing this to occur for 30 years.

I traveled to Denver and testified at one of the hearings sponsored by the EPA on the proposed coal ash rule. Many comments focused on the “stigma” that a hazardous label would have on the coal ash recycling industry. What is happening a few miles from my house is no stigma. It is reality. We have trusted the state and federal agencies to protect the public, and enforce the law, and they have flat ignored their public trust responsibilities. The state and federal agencies need to uphold the laws, not act as agents for industry. We are not asking for anything more than we should already be receiving.

This is a prime example of why we need federal legislation to protect the public. When the state agencies fail to enforce the law, it is then up to the federal agencies, in this case the EPA, to ensure that state laws are enforced and the public is protected. If the states are uncomfortable with the federal government enforcing state law, then the states must step up and enforce the law themselves. The trust that we have with the government has been grossly violated, and it is time for a change. Our federal and state government can and should do better. It is up to us, the public, to ensure that happens.

PSR invites concerned readers to sign our petition urging President Obama to direct the EPA to issue strong coal ash protections.

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