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Bruce Nilles

Bruce Nilles

Posted: September 9, 2010 11:17 AM

Coal Ash, A Rancher's View

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The Environmental Protection Agency is in the middle of a series of public hearings at sites around the country to gather input on new protections from toxic coal ash. This week's blog post comes from Sierra Club Apprentice Jenny Kordick.

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After watching a deer refuse to drink water from a reservoir on a hot summer day last August, Colstrip, Montana area ranchers knew something was wrong. The water, found to contain toxic levels of sulfates, was traced back to a coal ash dump.

Coal ash contamination in Colstrip, Montana dates back nearly 30 years. Colstrip sits on one of the largest coal deposits in North America, and is home to four coal-fired power plants owned by Pennsylvania Power and Light (PP&L).The company disposes of coal ash, the toxic by-product of burning coal, in wet ash dumps, known as settling ponds,in the area.

Insufficient pond linings and poor construction techniques, in addition to lack of state environmental regulation,have led to widespread contamination of water resources in Colstrip. "The state of Montana has had every opportunity to right this wrong, and has failed in every way," said Clint McRae, a Colstrip area rancher.

The ranching community in Colstrip, including McRae, expressed concern about the ash settling ponds used to dispose of coal ash, but were assured by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality the ponds would not leak, and if they did, the power plants would be shut down.

"We were lied to." McRae stated. "We trusted our state and federal agencies to represent our best interests, and keep us from damage. This has not happened."

The livelihood of McRae and other ranchers in Colstrip is threatened by toxic coal ash, as healthy water quality is critical to the success of ranching operations. Simply put, cows drinking toxic water will die. Two coal ash ponds in the area were found to be leaking water containing 16 times the amount of sulfates needed to cause death in cattle.

Instead of cleaning up the coal ash contamination and fixing the leaks, PP&L has opted for a cheaper method to silence the issue. This involves fencing off contaminated ponds, and buying up damaged and polluted land, including the land containing the reservoir where the deer refused to drink.

PP&L is getting by with this for now, but McRae, whose family has been in the area for five generations, makes one thing clear: "Our places are not for sale."

In 2008, PP&L settled for $25 million with 60 homeowners in Colstrip whose drinking water became contaminated. McRae, who was not involved in the lawsuit, is acting as a voice for his family and neighbors that settled with PP&L and can no longer speak out on the issue. McRae traveled to the Denver coal ash hearing last week to speak out for strong, federally enforceable protections from coal ash as the Environmental Protection Agency considers a proposal to federally regulate toxic coal ash disposal for the first time-a proposal that, after more than two decades, may finally help stop leaking coal ash ponds and protect the families in Colstrip.

The Denver hearing McRae attended was the second of seven hearings nationwide that are being held to gather public opinion on how to regulate toxic coal ash disposal. See www.sierraclub.org/coalash for more information and to find out how you can tell the EPA what you think.