Colstrip Steam Plant

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Colstrip Steam Plant is a coal-fired power station owned primarily by Puget Sound Energy and operated by PPL near Colstrip, Montana. Portland General Electric has a 20 percent ownership interest.[1]

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Book on Colstrip Released

In October 2010 photographer David T. Hanson released a book titled Colstrip, Montana, which, according to a review on TreeHugger.com:

[T]ells the story of a town that would never have been founded if it weren't for the fortune in dirty coal that lies beneath it—around $350,000 per acre. It is a story told through Hanson's photographs; a Montana native, Hanson has been photographing Colstrip since the early 1980s. The book's only text consists of an introduction and a concluding essay by writer and environmental activist Rick Bass.
The 81 photographs that are the heart of the book are sobering. They highlight not only the environmental destruction that the mines and plant have wreaked on the landscape, but also the overwhelming industrialism that surrounds Colstrip's inhabitants. They insist on the essential ugliness of how we get this coal: it cannot be right or healthy, for us and our world. There are no people in the photographs, but the human hand print is everywhere.[2]

Plant Data

  • Owner: Puget Sound Energy
  • Parent Company: PPL
  • Plant Nameplate Capacity: 2,272 MW
  • Units and In-Service Dates: 358 MW (1975), 358 MW (1976), 778 MW (1984), 778 MW (1986)
  • Location: 601 Willow Ave., Colstrip, MT 59323
  • GPS Coordinates: 45.880278, -106.61333
  • Coal Consumption:
  • Coal Source:
  • Number of Employees:

Emissions Data

  • 2006 CO2 Emissions: 18,240,485 tons
  • 2006 SO2 Emissions: 14,298 tons
  • 2006 SO2 Emissions per MWh:
  • 2006 NOx Emissions: 32,869 tons
  • 2005 Mercury Emissions: 22 lb.

Death and disease attributable to fine particle pollution from Colstrip Steam Plant

In 2010, Abt Associates issued a study commissioned by the Clean Air Task Force, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization, quantifying the deaths and other health effects attributable to fine particle pollution from coal-fired power plants.[3] Fine particle pollution consists of a complex mixture of soot, heavy metals, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides. Among these particles, the most dangerous are those less than 2.5 microns in diameter, which are so tiny that they can evade the lung's natural defenses, enter the bloodstream, and be transported to vital organs. Impacts are especially severe among the elderly, children, and those with respiratory disease. The study found that over 13,000 deaths and tens of thousands of cases of chronic bronchitis, acute bronchitis, asthma, congestive heart failure, acute myocardial infarction, dysrhythmia, ischemic heart disease, chronic lung disease, and pneumonia each year are attributable to fine particle pollution from U.S. coal plant emissions. These deaths and illnesses are major examples of coal's external costs, i.e. uncompensated harms inflicted upon the public at large. Low-income and minority populations are disproportionately impacted as well, due to the tendency of companies to avoid locating power plants upwind of affluent communities. To monetize the health impact of fine particle pollution from each coal plant, Abt assigned a value of $7,300,000 to each 2010 mortality, based on a range of government and private studies. Valuations of illnesses ranged from $52 for an asthma episode to $440,000 for a case of chronic bronchitis.[4]

Table 1: Death and disease attributable to fine particle pollution from Colstip Steam Plant

Type of Impact Annual Incidence Valuation
Deaths 31 $230,000,000
Heart attacks 48 $5,300,000
Asthma attacks 530 $4,000
Hospital admissions 22 $28,000
Chronic bronchitis 19 $8,600,000
Asthma ER visits 31 $11,000

Source: "Find Your Risk from Power Plant Pollution," Clean Air Task Force interactive table, accessed February 2011

"High Hazard" Surface Impoundment and CO2 Emissions

In August 2009, Puget Sound Energy (PSE), Washington State's largest energy provider released its energy plan that was criticized by the Sierra Club and others for continuing its business-as-usual approach by promoting the use of coal-generated power. Approximately two-thirds of PSE's coal power comes from the Colstrip Steam Plant in eastern Montana. PSE’s use of energy from Colstrip resulted in 6.3 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions in 2008.[5]

In 1977 Colstrip was equipped with scrubbers which reduces its sulfur dioxide output. However, critics of the plant note that the burners still turn out massive amounts of carbon dioxide.

Colstrip ranked 9th in terms of largest carbon dioxide emissions and Fly Ash Pond

According to a 2009 report by Environment America, "America's Biggest Polluters," the Colstrip Steam Plant is the ninth dirtiest plant in the nation, releasing 19.3 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2007. Ranking is based upon Environmental Protection Agency data.[6] Additionally, the facility's coal-ash pond has caused extensive damage and the owners were forced to pay $25 million in the Spring of 2008 to 57 local residents. Entire aquifers in the area have been polluted.[7]

EPA ranks Colstrip power plant among worst in nation for mercury

Environmental group Environment America in January 2011 released a report ranking power plants according to the amount of mercury the plant emits into the air and soil.

The group, using EPA data, ranked a Montana power company the 11th-largest coal-fired polluter of mercury in the nation and the worst among those in Western states. According to its report, ”Dirty Energy’s Assault on our Health: Mercury,” Colstrip Steam Electric Station emitted 1,490 pounds of mercury in 2009. This accounted for most of the 1,726 pounds of mercury released by all of Montana’s power plants that year.[8]

Water Pollution from Coal Ash Ponds

The following is an account by Kristen Lombarki of the Center for Public Integrity, detailing the problems related to coal ash at the Colstrip Steam Plant:[9]

Pat Nees never liked the water at the Moose Lodge. Almost everyone in tiny Colstrip, Montana, drank and dined at Lodge #2190, but the well water was notorious — it smelled like a sewer. It felt oily, gritty from sediment. Lodge members braving a drink — Nees among them — frequently doubled over from indigestion.
Nees, 57, a board member at the lodge, fielded numerous complaints about the water. But he and fellow Moose members, many of them equipment operators and technicians at the nearby Colstrip Steam Electric Station, a giant coal-fired power plant, never thought twice about the massive waste ponds a half mile away.
They never fathomed they were drinking water laced with coal ash.:Colstrip sits above the Rosebud seam, a layer of sub-bituminous coal running through the Powder River Basin, a perfect place for a power plant. The hamlet of trailers and bungalows that makes up the town exists solely because of the electric station. The place boomed in the ’70s and ’80s, when plant construction drew thousands. And while it’s faded since, Colstrip remains a company town, populated by 2,300 folks toiling at the utility or the local mine that feeds nine million tons of coal a year into the power plant’s furnaces.
A metal behemoth, the plant’s four generators give off a constant rumble. Operated by PPL Montana and owned by a consortium including other firms — Avista Corporation, PacifiCorp, Portland General Electric, NorthWestern Energy, and Puget Sound Energy — it burns a boxcar of coal every five minutes, powering a million and a half households up and down the West Coast. As the operator, PPL Montana speaks for the plant.
Residents near the plant don’t seem to mind the air pollutants pouring out of the stacks — Colstrip station “scrubs” 95 percent of noxious gases from the smoke. What gets them is the coal ash — 964,000 tons of waste in 2005, the most recent year for which Energy Department statistics are available. The plant’s scrubbers pump ash slurry into an elaborate pond system at 7,500 gallons per minute. The acidic smell of the pond isn’t easily forgotten. The two biggest ponds — one spans 168 acres; the other, 367 — bookend the town. Tom Ring, the state environmental-science specialist overseeing the plant, describes a six-page list of almost two dozen chemicals in the ponds as “a table of woe.”
State records and company documents revealed in court peg the so-called Stage Ponds as top culprits for leakage of some of those chemicals. Built in 1976 with a clay buffer, the Stage 1 Pond began oozing pollutants as far back as 1979 and has continued to do so — even though it was “capped”— covered over with a liner — in 1997. Its companion, the Stage 2 Pond, came online in the ‘90s, and still receives coal ash at 3,000 gallons per minute; lined with plastic, this pond has failed 18 times.
The consequences weren’t known until residents sued the consortium over groundwater issues in 2003. Through the discovery process, documents obtained by the plaintiffs show that coal ash has befouled groundwater hundreds of feet beyond the ponds with boron, sulfate, and chloride, among other chemicals. Pollutants have also corrupted a handful of wells in neighborhoods below the Stage ponds; other wells, drilled through the pollution, have been rendered inoperable.
Not that there weren’t warning signs. Take the water at the Moose Lodge, for instance. Nees says the board eventually tested the well, only to find contaminants hovering above safety levels. Members began hauling water in jugs, never tying their predicament to the ponds situated on an overlying plateau. And neither did Nees, a 29-year veteran of the plant.
But the power companies were documenting coal-ash contamination. Since the mid-‘80s, plant hydrogeologists had tracked a filthy plume of boron emanating from the Stage ponds. Essential to plant life in low doses, boron turns lethal at levels of 2 milligrams per liter, and presents a litany of other health hazards. The EPA has issued in draft a “health reference level” for boron not to exceed drinking-water standards of 1.4 milligrams per liter. By 1993, the lodge’s well had already exhibited unsafe concentrations at twice that level. In 2000 and subsequent years, records show its boron levels were reaching up to 13 times the limit.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” asks Nees. Now retired, Nees is soft-spoken and exceedingly polite, but his face reddens when he talks about the bouts of diarrhea he suffered after drinking the lodge’s water. In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs don’t tie illnesses directly to the coal-ash contamination. But Alan Nye, a Montana toxicologist who reviewed the contamination data on their behalf, noted in court records that “private wells contaminated by the… plume should not be used for irrigation water or for drinking by people or animals.”
Judie Soiseth, a petite woman who ignored the rainbow film in her water, ceased using it once her cats refused to lap it up. “Every time I used [the water] I felt maybe I shouldn’t,” confides Soiseth, who was diagnosed with nodules on her thyroid and believes they are somehow tied to the water.
In a statement, the company calls the $25 million settlement reached in May “a good outcome for all parties involved.” It stresses that PPL Montana “inherited the groundwater issues after it purchased an interest in Colstrip in 1999 and took immediate steps to correct them” — installing monitoring wells and modern pond liners. The lawsuit prompted the company to spend $900,000 to extend municipal water to the neighborhoods below the ponds.
“PPL Montana will continue to take appropriate actions to help alleviate concerns that people have about their wells,” the statement reads, “and help prevent any risk of contamination.”
According to state records, however, the coal-ash ponds are still leaking, forcing PPL Montana to build wells to recover contamination. Made of giant metal cylinders, the wells are drilled 300 feet into the ground and topped by electric pumps that pull out the polluted water and cycle it back to the ash ponds. A second lawsuit over ash contamination, filed by residents in 2007 and currently pending, suggests more trouble. It claims that the plant’s largest pond has unleashed slurry towards two cattle ranches and tainted a creek.

Citizen action

Montana ranchers will sue over coal mining impacts

Ranchers near Colstrip, Montana say their livelihoods are threatened by pollution and disrupted water-flows associated with nearby coal mines. Ranchers, including Doug McRae, say that they have attempted to get the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to address their issues, to which they have not been assisted. As such, a group of ranchers has teamed up with conservationists to file a notice of intent to sue. The notice, filed on September 20, 2011 charges that the DEQ has neglected to protect streams and rivers from coal mining throughout Montana. From the date of the filing, the DEQ has 60 days to begin addressing the water quality and supply impacts caused by mining operations or it will face a lawsuit from conservationists on behalf of ranchers.[10]

Citizen groups

Articles and Resources

Sources

  1. "Power Plants" PGE Website, September 2010.
  2. "Colstrip, Montana and the Tragedy of an American Coal Plant (Book Review)" Alex Davies, Treehugger.com, October 16, 2010.
  3. "The Toll from Coal: An Updated Assessment of Death and Disease from America's Dirtiest Energy Source," Clean Air Task Force, September 2010.
  4. "Technical Support Document for the Powerplant Impact Estimator Software Tool," Prepared for the Clean Air Task Force by Abt Associates, July 2010
  5. "Puget Sound Energy's new energy plan disappoints: Sierra Club calls on the utility to speed up coal replacement," Sierra Club, August 8, 2009.
  6. "America's Biggest Polluters: Carbon Dioxide Emissions from Power Plants in 2007" Environment America, November 24, 2009
  7. ", Kristen Lombardi, The Center for Public Integrity, February 19, 2009.
  8. "Montana’s Colstrip Power Plant Among Worst in the Nation for Mercury Emissions, Says Enviro Group" Brendon Bowsworth, January 31, 2011.
  9. "Coal Ash: The Hidden Story," Center for Public Integrity, February 19, 2009
  10. "Montana ranchers say they’ll sue over coal mine impacts" Summit Voice, SummitCountyVoice.com, September 21, 2011.

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