Story: The Poisoning of Colstrip


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 the water. Clint McRae's great-great-grandfather came when the area was opened for homesteading in the 1880s, in search of a good place to raise cows. When he found water in Rosebud County that was clean, plentiful and close to the surface, he stayed. 

"One of the things in agriculture you always look for is water--quality and quantity--and the reason they settled here is there was a lot of water, and it was shallow. The aquifers were very shallow," said Clint McRae, 49, a six-foot rancher with a thick dark brown mustache who almost always wears a bandana around his neck, bow tied in front.

But he and others in Colstrip are worried because the water under the town is being compromised by poisons known to cause cancer in people and other problems in cattle.

The source of the toxins is the Colstrip Steam Electric Station (SES), located about 10 miles from the McRae ranch, the Rocker Six Cattle Company. It is the second-largest coal-fired power plant west of the Mississippi. Its four smokestacks tower over Colstrip's tiny downtown, churning out plumes of smoke 24 hours a day that can be seen for dozens of miles. The power plant is owned by a consortium of six power companies and operated by PPL Montana. It burns one railcar of coal every five minutes, more than 10 million tons a year, and sends most of the electricity it generates to customers across Montana, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.

But it is not the plant itself that upsets McRae -- he has friends who work there. Coal production and burning is the foundation of the town's entire economy, and he has no desire to jeopardize that.

What angers him and other local residents is that the coal ash, a byproduct of burning coal that is thick with pollutants and which PPL turns into a thick slurry and pipes to storage ponds scattered on the outskirts of town, is seeping out of those ponds. Mercury, selenium, arsenic, sulfates and other substances in the muddy mixture that are dangerous to humans have been leaking from the ponds into the aquifers below the town since as far back as the late 1970s.

Everybody involved, including PPL and state environmental officials, acknowledges the leakage, but nobody has done anything substantive to permanently stop it. The focus has been on mitigation instead. "It's just a fact that when you have ponds, at some point there's going to be seepage and you try to address it as it happens," PPL spokesman David Hoffman said in a phone interview.  

Colstrip Montana
(See details on photo in "External" section below)

Coal ash rose to national attention in December 2008, when a dam at a storage pond in Kingston, Tennessee collapsed and released 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash sludge into the environment. The spill covered about 400 acres and destroyed a dozen or more homes. While many have not heard of coal ash outside of the Kingston incident, the solid waste -- which contains toxic substances including arsenic, mercury, selenium, lead, cadmium, boron, and dioxins, as well as uranium and thorium, elements that make coal ash as radioactive as nuclear waste, if not more so -- is produced by every coal-burning power plant in the world. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2009, the latest count available, there were 594 coal-fired power plants in the United States alone.

The coal industry says it is safe, but there is growing concern nationwide about the potential health effects of coal ash. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website states: "[coal combustion] residuals contain contaminants like mercury, cadmium and arsenic associated with cancer and various other serious health effects. EPA’s risk assessment and damage cases demonstrate that, without proper protections, these contaminants can leach into groundwater and often migrate to drinking water sources, posing public significant health concerns."

The lack of "proper protections" is precisely the concern that McRae, and citizens in other communities dealing with coal ash around the country, have. Currently, coal ash is regulated at the state level, leaving disposal and treatment methods to vary widely from state to state and often allowing power companies to treat coal ash however they see fit. 

A majority of the sludge from the Kingston spill, for example, has been transported to a landfill in Perry County, Alabama. There, resident and clean water advocate John Wathen says the sludge is mixed with household waste and the liquid portion is poured repeatedly over the top of the garbage mound. This reduces the volume of the liquid but also concentrates its toxicity. Wathen said he has tested arsenic levels around the county and found levels as high as 0.840 mg/L. The legal limit is .01 mg/L, and protective steps are supposed to be taken at .05 mg/L.

Wathen described the meticulous care with which the ash is treated before it crosses from Tennessee into Alabama: contained in sealed plastic bags so that no dust can escape, and anything that comes in contact with the ash, from the train cars to people's shoes, must be double-washed afterward. But once it crosses into Alabama, he said, the bags are opened and the ash is dumped on the ground and sent to the landfill, where it is treated as nothing more than kitchen food waste left out for curbside trash collection. 

Under chief administrator Lisa Jackson, the federal EPA has managed to issue a call for greater regulation of coal ash. But the process has sunk the agency into a bureaucratic battle that has lasted more than two years. The first of its two proposed rules would classify coal ash as hazardous waste and regulate it at the federal level. The second would continue to delegate coal ash regulation to the states and classify it essentially as regular solid waste. The coal and coal ash recycling industries have lobbied heavily for the latter proposal. 

When the EPA first proposed new regulations for coal ash, it put forth only the stricter, hazardous waste rule. A Greenwire story published in The New York Times last year reported that the second proposal was issued only after the White House's Office of Management and Budget met with industry groups more than 30 times -- and that prior to those meetings, upon releasing the initial proposal, the EPA wrote, "maintaining a [nonhazardous] approach would not be protective of human and the environment."

The industry insists that coal ash recycling is perfectly safe and that it cannot afford the changes that would come with the hazardous waste rule. The American Coal Ash Association Educational Foundation says on its website, "Designating coal ash as hazardous or toxic is counter to scientific evidence and would seriously limit the current widespread uses of these materials today."  

Environmental organizations and citizens like Wathen and the ranchers in Colstrip, on the other hand, say that rule is crucial for adequate protection of public safety in their town and other coal mining communities across the nation.

"States have not proven themselves fit to regulate the disposal of coal ash," said Jenny Harbine, a staff attorney with Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm that has focused on coal ash issues nationwide and lobbied for the stricter rule from the EPA. "Colstrip in some ways is a really prime example of this."

Colstrip Montana
(See details on photo in "External" section below)

Unlike many coal-fired power plants, the Colstrip plant is not located on a rail line. The coal is hauled in not by rail or truck, but on a conveyor from a strip mine just across the street, one of the largest remaining strip mines in the country. The earth has been scraped for its innards for so long that a view from above makes the area look more like a moonscape than scenic rural Montana. 

The coal that lies there is the inspiration behind the town's name, according to the current mayor, John Williams. Colstrip was first established because of the mine, and it grew because of the power plant, which was built in Colstrip specifically because the mine was so close. It would be a "mine-to-mouth" operation that would be out of sight for most of the power's consumers -- a pioneering idea at the time that "Last Stand at Rosebud Creek," a book that maps out the recent history of Colstrip, attributes originally to Fred DeGuire, a 1920s Minnesota-based journalist and public relations professional. 

PPL says that the Colstrip plant ranks among the top 20 percent of the cleanest coal plants in the country. It has "state-of-the-art scrubbers" that keep sulfur dioxide emissions below Clean Air Act-required levels, according to the company. This is the principle behind "clean coal" plants: that coal is burned using technology that releases fewer contaminants into the air than most coal plants of the past. However, the byproducts of coal combustion do not disappear: they only change form. If they are not released into the air, they turn into solid waste -- and become part of the coal ash, also called coal combustion residues -- instead. Coal ash has fewer regulations than air pollution, and in some states has virtually no regulations at all. 

Colstrip sits in the southeast corner of Montana. Surrounded by sparse landscapes scattered with striking, jagged rock formations and hilly terrain that hints at the mountains farther west, the town itself is extremely flat. To get there, you drive either past the Little Bighorn Battlefield, site of Custer's Last Stand, and through poverty-stricken Indian reservations; or through the largely-unpopulated but beautifully scenic territory that lines I-94, which connects the closest city of Billings to the west with neighboring North Dakota to the east. Creeks weave in and around Colstrip, mostly offshoots of the Yellowstone River. 

It is a small town with a population of about 2,300 people. There's one school district that serves about 675 students from kindergarten through the 12th grade. The closest movie theater is in Forsyth, a 40-minute drive away. The two main bars in Colstrip are the Miner House, and the Whiskey Gulch Saloon across the street. At the Miner House, regulars can be found ordering a combination you'll be hard-pressed to find elsewhere: a shot and a "throw," which gets you a cup of dice. If you roll a Yahtzee, you win the pool of money. 

Advocacy against the ponds by residents like McRae has not gotten them very far with the company or with the state environmental agency, and has put them at odds with other Colstrip residents. While the ranchers are part of a strong contingent trying to get the power plant to clean up its operations, most local residents, including the mayor, say there's no problem. "We're not aware of any effects that are detrimental to the groundwater here," said Williams. 

It's not that residents are unaffected: 57 residents sued the power companies for groundwater contamination and settled in 2008 for $25 million. Rather than get an admission of the problem from PPL or a solution to the contaminated groundwater, these residents got pipes connecting their homes to the municipal water system, so that they would not have to drink out of their wells anymore. 

It wasn't the perfect solution, since they did not have to pay to use their wells but they do have to pay for municipal water. Residents are also concerned that the municipal water supply, Castle Rock Lake, has been contaminated by wastewater leaking out of the coal ash pond just north of the lake. And Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks has recommended limiting the consumption of certain fish from that lake because of mercury contamination.

Jory Ruggiero, a Bozeman-based attorney who represented the plaintiffs, said that PPL has not admitted the city water supply is contaminated, but gave the response anyway that if it were, "[the coal ash] would be so diluted that it wouldn't be a health concern." 

"That's a lot of consolation if you're drinking that water," he said sarcastically.

Justin Batey, a Colstrip resident who was part of the settlement, echoed that skepticism. He won't drink the municipal water the settlement set him up the right to drink. "However minute they say [the contamination] is, I don't think it's right," he said, gesturing to a supply of water jugs lined up behind his front door that he relies on for drinking, instead of what comes out of his sink.

It's been nearly three years since the lawsuit was settled, and plaintiffs who answered their doors on a cold Saturday morning made it clear that little has changed since. Asked whether the contamination issues had been resolved, one woman who refused to be identified or discuss the issue further would only say, "I doubt it."

Colstrip Montana

There's no question that the power plant is crucial to the local economy. Colstrip is a company town. The town's total labor force is 1,238, according to a city report based on census data, and nearly 800 people are employed by either the power plant or coal mine. A report commissioned by the plant owners found that wages for plant employees were almost double the average income in the state, and the plant contributes to a large tax base, which provides its own benefits. According to the Southeastern Montana Development Corporation, the tax base has helped build a strong local school system and good medical services.

PPL owns a majority of the property in town, including the building in which the Colstrip City Hall was housed, where it paid for utilities but not rent, until it moved to a converted shopping mall on Cherry Street downtown a couple years ago.

Almost anywhere you stand in town, you are in the shadow of the power plant. It hums constantly. In the dead of winter, when the air is stiller and colder than usual, the steam-gas mixture coming out of the power plant creates a stark contrast of white against the crisp, clear blue sky. Cars parked in town will sometimes be covered with white residue from those vapors that looks just like snow. 

Many Colstrip residents have come to view the ranchers who want to see the ponds lined more effectively as "wild-eyed environmentalists." It's not a label with which the ranchers feel comfortable. They are not opposed to the coal plant's existence, and they fully understand the role that coal plays in the local economy. Environmentalists are not usually found supporting continued energy production from coal, or coal mining operations. Many environmentalists do not even support ranching. The ranchers want little more than to protect their water supply. 

But their call for the ponds to be sealed is viewed by many other residents in town as focusing on what the company is doing wrong, rather than what it is doing right.

"They're doing what they're supposed to do, so we have no issue with the power plant owners," said Mayor Williams. "I see the benefits of the things that they're trying to do to come into compliance with the different regulations that are out there."


Monitoring data is collected by PPL typically twice a year, according to Tom Ring of the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). The ranchers would like more frequently updated information, but testing is expensive. While they can't keep track of contaminant levels on a daily basis, they do know little is being done to stop the contaminants from leaving the ponds in the first place. 

"The only difference between Colstrip and Kingston is that [this contamination] is underground," said McRae, referring to the 2008 spill in Tennessee. "That was above-ground, but it's the same stuff."

Some insist that the ponds, also called impoundments, should never have existed and that the coal ash would be better off stored as dry ash, rather than as sludge. Mark Squillace, director of the University of Colorado's Natural Resources Law Center and an expert on coal ash, argues that wet storage is a flawed system not only for Colstrip but for the entire west. 

"The problem with the slurry is that you are basically--voluntarily--combining the coal ash, which can have some toxic constituents, with water or some other liquid, and there's always going to be a greater danger of some of those toxic constituents leaching out into the environment," he said. 






Instead of considering a switch to dry storage or trying to ensure the ponds are completely sealed, PPL has installed wells that are meant to capture waste leaking out from the ponds and pump it back into them. "We literally have hundreds of them in place at various locations around the ponds," said Hoffman from PPL.

The wells have become so numerous that some locals now liken the area to Swiss cheese. Ring from DEQ also acknowledged the increasing number of wells. "There's far more recovery wells now than were envisioned originally," he said. "We've had really great luck with some, and less with others."

The ranchers and others complain that instead of capturing the contaminants, the wells are actually trapping what clean water is still flowing to their property and contaminating that as well.

"They pull out contamination in the aquifer along with a lot of clean water because it's mixed. It's kind of hard to get one without the other," said Ruggiero, the attorney. "They sometimes create groundwater shadows, essentially where they're removing so much water that they're actually depleting an aquifer."

(In Montana, where water is distributed according to water rights held by individual landowners, that is seen as a theft of property, and is an issue unto itself.)

Coal ash experts agree that recovery wells, sometimes referred to as pump-back wells, are not the best solution for an ongoing problem. 

"Pump-back situations are best viewed as a stopgap," said Charles Norris, a hydrogeologist based in Colorado who has worked on coal issues around the country. "Something where the only protection that's being provided is an active operation that requires maintenance, requires funding, requires oversight, requires the desire to keep it going forever, is inherently a system that is set up to fail."

Wells have been dug since the 1980s, yet the contamination persists. And PPL drills more wells. 

The company has other mitigation measures, mainly a "forced evaporation" technology and a paste plant, both meant to reduce the water content in the ponds and thus the potential for contamination as well. 

Like its name suggests, the paste plant thickens the coal ash slurry into a paste and then uses it to help seal the ponds. Questions remain over the effectiveness of a buffer made from the substance it is designed to prevent from escaping. Ring admits that there have been problems with drift from the misters used for forced evaporation, but approves of the company's use of the technology as part of a solution.

Together, these measures form the basis of the company's formal proposal to the state, called the Administrative Order on Consent (AOC) [PDF], for dealing with the contamination problem going forward. It is supposed to provide a mandatory plan for investigating and mitigating the release of water from the ponds, but the proposal is not adequate as far as the ranchers and environmental groups are concerned.

"Essentially what this AOC does is ratify the status quo. It doesn't require any additional remediation, it doesn't require Colstrip to seal its ponds," said Harbine from Earthjustice. "It is relying on this so-called closed loop system that Colstrip's operators have developed, which appears to us to be a system that allows for an ever-expanding plume of contamination radiating out from the waste facilities."

Earthjustice has been openly critical of PPL, but the company agreed that the proposal does not change very much. (It has been stuck in review for well over a year, but PPL and DEQ met privately several times before it was released, and there is little sign it won't be approved.) "The agreement was really a long time coming. It probably should have been in place a long time ago," said Hoffman, the company spokesman. "Now that we have it, it really doesn't change anything. It doesn't change how we operate or what our requirements are."

Changes in how PPL operates, and in the standards upheld by the state, are exactly what McRae and other ranchers in the area want. When the plant was first built in the 1970s, and then expanded from two to four units in the late 1970s, Wally McRae, Clint's father, remembers being promised that the ponds would not leak--and that if they did, the plant would be shut down. 

Wally is quite the character. He is a longtime rancher who also writes poetry. He was recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1990, was nominated by President Clinton to serve on the National Council of the Arts, and was ranked number 42 in the Missoulian newspaper's list of Most Influential Montanans of the Century.

Wally was a leader of the community's opposition to the expansion of the power plant decades ago, and the battle has not let up much since he first got involved. The original permit for the four-unit power plant, dated 1976, stated "that the sludge pond or ponds shall be completely sealed." But a pivotal district court decision in 1983 [PDF] reinterpreted the permit to allow seepage from the ponds. Specifically, the judge wrote that the pond "may leak in small amounts."  

The same judge -- in the same ruling -- also recognized the "completely sealed" condition from the original permit. Ruggiero, the attorney, said the 1983 decision "wasn't a paragon of clarity." 

"It acknowledged that the [power companies] could try to collect the seepage and that was necessary, but it also did reiterate the terms of the permit, which said no discharge to groundwater and closed-loop system," he said.

So for nearly three decades, the ranchers have said the ponds should be sealed, while DEQ and the power company have been letting the ponds leak. It has never been a priority to stop the leaks. And since no parameters were set for how small the "small amounts" of leaking needed to be, there has been no real goal to strive for -- and no urgent need to achieve it. DEQ is the agency responsible for monitoring pollution, but it's also responsible for monitoring drinking water quality so inaction on one issue can easily mean inaction on both. 

Water quality tests in the area have found elevated levels of arsenic, cadmium and selenium, and sulfate levels up to 30 times greater than the EPA's Secondary Drinking Water Regulations. A 2010 report carried out by consulting firm USKH Inc. for the Sierra Club states that PPL's monitoring data is insufficient or nonexistent for nitrate/nitrite, molybdenum, cobalt, arsenic, and cadmium. 

DEQ has the authority to fine PPL $10,000 a day for contaminating the water, as well as force the company to clean up and seal the ponds, yet it has never done either, and Ring says the agency has no plans to impose the fine. "We're getting more cleanup activity and investment in cleanup out of them with this policy approach than we would get if we were levying fines," he said. 

To that, McRae responded, "Ring is talking of 'clean-up activity' when he should be talking about stopping the ash ponds from leaking. PPL is banking on the facade that 'clean-up activity' will solve the problem, when in reality it is nothing more than treating the symptom, and the DEQ is allowing them to get away with it."


McRae understands that DEQ is an agency strapped for resources and has a lot on its agenda. But he also believes it's no accident that the whole process surrounding the AOC is taking so much time. He said he thinks PPL is buying time to lobby against the federal hazardous waste regulation.

There's a good chance he's right. A letter from DEQ in September states that PPL is not required to seal the ponds if that is not what the law requires. It then says, "If federal regulations pertaining to disposal of coal combustion products change, additional pond lining may be called for."

And the coal industry has been lobbying heavily at the federal level for the EPA to adopt the proposed rule that continues to treat coal ash as regular solid waste rather than hazardous waste. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the electric utility industry contributed more than $9 million to members of Congress during the 2009-2010 election cycle -- the period leading up to the EPA's proposed rules on coal ash -- and coal industry representatives met with White House staff at least 33 times in a similar time period, while it met with environmental and health groups about 12 times. 

Battles like the one in Colstrip are exactly why advocates of stricter regulation are fighting so hard to give the EPA more power. Since the issue is one of state regulation, the EPA is hands-off on the problems in Colstrip. An agency spokesman said simply, "impacts at Colstrip are limited to groundwater and as such the state of Montana is responsible."

Which is why Clint is more upset with the state agency than he is with PPL. "It's easy to point the finger at industry, but truly the problem is that the state is not enforcing the law," he said. "DEQ is acting as an agent for the industry rather than as an advocate for the public."

Ruggiero agrees. "DEQ is the oversight agency. The court in this (1983) case said that it had the power to shut this power plant down if it needed to," said Ruggiero. "I have a hard time accepting that Montana's environmental watchdog has to go tiptoeing around with a bunch of powerful national utility companies, instead of just telling them how it's going to be. They have the power to tell them how it's going to be."

But again, the problem goes back to that original permit and the judge's 1983 ruling. 

"The court has already determined that the pond does not have to be completely sealed," Ring from DEQ said about the agency's enforcement actions against PPL. 

While these recovery efforts have reduced the amount of contamination, however, they have not eliminated it. And that is the situation McRae and others are tired of. They want the state agency to say it's not enough for PPL to drill wells and capture contaminants as they leave the ponds. Local ranchers want the leaking of coal ash to stop altogether. 

"All activity has been to recover, which is a diversion from the real issue, that the stipulations of the ponds were to be completely sealed and were not to leak. The DEQ should be talking about how to stop the leak, not be talking about recovery," said McRae. "All I want to do is run a ranch. I want to be left the hell alone."





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ABOUT THE PHOTOS (Except the Power Plant Photo)

David T. Hanson’s photographs of the coal-mining town of Colstrip, Montana and the ruined landscape around it were exhibited at The Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1986. The New York Times art critic Vicki Goldberg noted that one of Hanson’s aerial views of a waste pond looked like “a second-generation Abstract Expressionist canvas painted in acid.” Goldberg selected one of them for her list of the hundred most important photographs of the twentieth century.

Selections from this series have been widely exhibited and published over the years, but the entire sequence was only rarely seen. For this book, Hanson went back and re-edited the series, added twenty-one pictures that haven’t ever been shown before, and reworked the sequence.

Sadly, although these photographs were made nearly thirty years ago, they are
perhaps even more relevant today, given growing concerns about energy production, environmental degradation, climate change, and increasingly prevalent environmental disasters. The pictures remain tragic reflections of a brutally despoiled environment.

The book includes Hanson’s introduction and an essay by Montana writer Rick Bass. A special collector's edition of Colstrip, Montana, limited to 60 signed and numbered copies in a custom slipcase with an original photograph, is available from Taverner Press at

David T. Hanson was born and raised in Montana, not far from Colstrip. He taught photography and art history at the Rhode Island School of Design from 1983-2000. He has received a number of awards for his work, including Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. His photographs have been widely exhibited and are in the collections of major museums throughout the world. In 1997, Aperture published a survey of Hanson’s work as Waste Land. Hanson makes his home in Iowa. For more information on the photographer and his work, please visit


  • Bravo! Great story on the tragic tale of a future Montana Superfund site. Well done.

  • Rachel, wonderful job. Glad to see it here:

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