GREAT FALLS - Work at a proposed coal-fired power plant east of here was halted Monday after the state Department of Environmental Quality said the developer had begun construction too early.
Work at the 250-megawatt Highwood Generating Station was under way as its developer, Southern Montana Electric, sought to beat a Nov. 30 regulatory deadline to finish preliminary construction on the foundation or face losing its air-quality permit.
Robert Gallagher, an environmental engineer specialist in the DEQ's Air Resources Management Bureau, pointed out the violation in a letter sent to SME on Thursday.
SME broke ground Oct. 15 and up to 40 workers had been assigned to the site. SME CEO Tim Gregori said all the workers have been sent home until the issue can be resolved.
The DEQ letter says SME violated the law because a final permit must be on hand before starting construction on facilities that emit hazardous pollutants. The electric cooperative's air permit regarding hazardous pollutants was approved by the state Nov. 10, but isn't "final and effective" until Wednesday or 15 days after its issuance, according to the DEQ.
SME officials, noting Highwood would be only a minor source of hazardous pollutants and therefore not subject to tougher rules faced by major-source emitters, questioned the state's position on the construction timeline. They added that state officials knew in advance when construction would begin.
"We were quite surprised," Gregori said.
Even though it will be only a minor emitter of hazardous pollutants, the DEQ said SME still needs "a final effective permit to bring their potential emissions below major source HAP (hazardous pollutants) levels" before beginning construction. "Therefore, construction activities at the SME facility are prohibited until at least Nov. 26," Gallagher wrote in the letter.