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Colstrip

The stacks of Colstrip’s four coal-fired generating plants break the prairie horizon as a storm blows over the southeast Montana town earlier this month.

BILLINGS – A Washington utility has put a $130 million to $200 million price tag on shutting down and cleaning up half of the Colstrip power complex and will begin calculating the cost to its electricity customers in the coming months.

Puget Sound Energy, which owns half of Colstrip Units 1 and 2, says the two coal-fired power plants can be shuttered and dismantled for $49.7 million. Cleaning up the contaminated water and coal waste at the site will take another $85 million to $142.7 million.

This is the first time since the debate about shuttering Colstrip began that real numbers have been put to paper.

The Colstrip Power Plant is the nation's 15th-largest producer of greenhouse gases, emitting 13.5 million metric tons annually, according to the EPA. Units 1 and 2 are its oldest and biggest polluters. PSE is under political pressure in Washington to cut coal from its energy supply in the next eight years.

Half of the bill for closing Units 1 and 2 would have to be picked up by co-owner Talen Energy, of Pennsylvania.

Montanans expressed concerns that PSE’s cleanup costs were too low and that the 2,300 residents of the company town of Colstrip, would pay the price.

“Montana needs to protect itself,” said Anne Hedges of the Montana Environmental Information Center. “The remediation of this site is critical to Colstrip. It matters more than anything else. The best economic development tool is to have clean water available.”

Colstrip has coal ash ponds that have been leaking wastewater for years. The community’s groundwater has been contaminated and cleanup is far from over. PSE’s estimate, which was released in a Colstrip closure report prepared by the staff of the Washington’s Utilities and Transportation Commission, includes the pond cleanup for Units 1 and 2. There are two other units that are not part of the conversation.

Last fall, MEIC and the Sierra Club cautioned UTC that the environmental cleanup costs associated with Units 1 and 2 could hit $500 million.

But PSE told the Billings Gazette it stands by its estimate. The company is currently pursuing a deal with the Washington Legislature allowing PSE to shutter Units 1 and 2 by 2022, but also acquire ownership in the power complex’s two newer units. Climate change is the impetus for Washington forcing PSE to cut its coal ties. Colstrip Units 3 and 4 emit fewer greenhouse gasses than the power generators PSE seeks to shutter.

“We’re currently supporting legislation here in Washington that calls for a plan to answer the questions about the future of Units 1 & 2,” said Ray Lane, a PSE spokesman. “The legislation is still on track, having passed out of a Senate committee on Thursday and now headed to a Senate vote.”

The Washington legislation has not gone the way lawmakers from Montana had hoped. Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, was one of several Montana politicians asking Washington to slow down Colstrip’s closure, while granting concessions to the company town. Namely, Ankney wanted the water rights to Colstrip Units 1 and 2 to be promised to his community.

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Colstrip power plants pipe water from the Yellowstone River, some 30 miles away. The town piggybacks on the power complex’s water delivery. Community leaders worry they won’t have water if the units shut down. Lawmakers are also worried about the economic consequences of shutting down Colstrip and have asked for more time so Montana can react.

“I’m concerned, of course, about the dollar impact. But, I’m really concerned about the water rights they have control of,” Ankney said of PSE.

The UTC report presents several different dates for shuttering Units 1 and 2, including a drop dead deadline of 2035, the year the federal government will demand action at Colstrip to bring Montana into compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan.

However, PSE explains that the costs of decommissioning Units 1 and 2 will increase by nearly $30 million by 2035. That’s because the units will continue to turn out coal ash, which will compound Colstrip’s environmental challenges.

That rise in costs has to bother Washington’s utilities commission, Hedges said. The UTC is responsible to making sure that PSE’s 1.1 million ratepayers don’t have to shoulder a larger cost burden than necessary. That PSE revealed the costs increase over time in its estimate signals to Hedges that the power company wants out of Colstrip Units 1 and 2.

“That to me is the admission that they don't have an interest in in operating these plants very long,” she said. “They’re saying the longer these are operational, the more it’s going to cost consumers.”

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