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MT energy watch: A proposal for Colstrip coal ash and the fate of radioactive fracking waste

Posted at 10:10 AM, May 02, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-02 12:10:35-04

Two developments happened on the Montana energy scene this week, and both are worth keeping an eye on.

First, two Billings politicians discussed a prospective beneficial use for coal ash waste from the Colstrip power plants in southeastern Montana.

The idea is to use the toxic coal ash at Colstrip to make cement blocks. Public Service Commissioner Tony O'Donnell of Billings and Republican lawmaker Rodney Garcia believe it has the potential to save Colstrip. They describe it as "turning waste into wealth".

"It's a transformational application," said O'Donnell. "Instead of just leaving the stuff in the ground to leach or cover up or whatever, which just sounds incredibly silly."

But environmental groups suggest if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Anne Hedges, deputy director with the Montana Environmental Information Center, told MTN that given the amount of hazardous pollutants in the Colstrip coal ash, it's a harebrained idea, noting that cement cracks and crumbles over time.

Hedges believes the best way to "save Colstrip" is to clean up the ash ponds and move the toxic pollutants to a high-and-dry, lined landfill. That type of cleanup, however, is estimated to cost as much as $700 million and could take decades.

The entire cleanup question at Colstrip is now tied up in the courts. That lawsuit, said Hedges, will land in the lap of Montana's next governor.

2 Montana energy stories to watch: Colstrip coal ash to cement blocks, and the fate of radioactive oil waste from North Dakota

In a separate matter this week, Montana's Environmental Quality Council voted to informally object to new rules that regulate disposal of radioactive oil waste in Montana. That waste includes filter socks that are used during the drilling and fracking process with oil wells.

The proposed new rules had been eight years in the making, in an effort to put Montana rules on par with those in North Dakota.

"I can't really overstate how important parity with the North Dakota rules is," said Plentywood rancher Laurel Clawson.

Clawson lives near one of Montana's five disposal sites that have been permitted to accept radioactive oil waste. Her fear is Montana will become a dumping site, since North Dakota has yet to permit a single facility.

"They enjoy the revenue stream. We are getting the garbage," said Clawson. "We are not getting the revenue stream to go with this. It's not that money can fix a destroyed aquifer anyway, but the benefit we think we're reaping is mostly going out of state."

Clawson points to Oaks Disposal near Glendive, currently the only facility in Montana that accepts such waste. Since opening in 2013, the Oaks facility has taken in more than half a million tons of radioactive oil waste. And 73 percent comes from North Dakota.

"Parity with North Dakota is just common sense," Clawson said. "If we look like a big open space with no rules, we'll absolutely become a target for this waste. I think this is the place to set the bar."

Rep. Jim Keane of Butte, the EQC chairman, told MTN News that the council will take up the radiocative rules at its next meeting in May, but he isn't sure how the council will proceed.

The council's action extends a process that already has involved six rule drafts, three public comment periods, four public hearings, plus testimony from thousands of eastern Montanans.

Clawson is worried the delay could become permanent.

"We are afraid after a long, long and very legitimate process that it might get derailed," said Clawson.