By Anne Hedges

I recently dug through old files about the Pegasus Gold fiasco at Zortman/Landusky and WR Grace’s Libby disaster. The purpose was to develop a public education campaign comparing previous environmental disasters in Montana with PPL’s leaking Colstrip coal ash ponds. I didn’t expect such eerie similarities. The quote, “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it,” had a whole new meaning.

Newspapers touted the importance of mining jobs. Pegasus denied problems, mocked concerned citizens, and sweet-talked elected officials. Government agencies dismissed concerns about the mine’s water pollution. DEQ’s director said the environmental problems were a thing of the past. Shortly thereafter, Pegasus declared bankruptcy. Taxpayers have spent more than $20 million on cleanup and there’s no end in sight.

Ditto for WR Grace’s disaster at Libby. For years, state and federal agencies turned a blind eye to the mounting disaster that resulted in hundreds of deaths. After the mine closed, regulators continued to ignore the problem. When an out-of-state reporter broke the story years later, regulators feigned innocence and pointed the finger at the company. The company quickly went bankrupt. Taxpayers have spent $245 million dealing with that mess so far.

That’s what makes the Colstrip story so disturbing. We’ve been here before. When Montana approved the Colstrip coal ash ponds it said it would be a closed-loop system… trust us. When the ponds leaked it said of course minimal seepage is acceptable… trust us. When PPL and DEQ met behind closed doors to negotiate a settlement to the problem they said, “trust us.” When they released the negotiated “enforcement” agreement and we questioned its lack of penalties, timeframes, bonds, and cleanup standards… they said trust us. That was almost two years ago.

Colstrip’s operator, PPL (another out-of-state multinational corporation), earns more than $1 billion in profit annually. It can afford to clean up the 800 acres of leaking coal ash ponds, but time is money so it’s in no hurry to spend money on cleanup. The ponds are like a sieve, hemorrhaging pollutants into the aquifer – 500,000 gallons a day, nearly 200 million gallons per year.

Again DEQ says trust us, we have an “administrative order on consent” that requires cleanup. It’s hard to trust DEQ when its history of taking on multinational corporations like PPL is so abysmal. DEQ hasn’t fined PPL one red cent for polluting the aquifer around Colstrip. We want to trust them. They seem nice enough. But fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, or three, or four, or five times….

It’s important to remember that PPL is the real bad actor though. It’s the one that is making huge profits while it pollutes the water. Unfortunately, the PPL’s pollution is sitting in a small company town in eastern Montana, where out-of-sight often means out-of-mind. Montanans need to know about the water pollution being caused by the Colstrip coal-fired power plant. They need to know that PPL wants to sell Colstrip and hightail it out of Montana. The once mighty Pegasus, WR Grace, Asarco, Montana Power, all seemed too big to fail once. The fact that PPL seems mighty today is no assurance at all. The puny $7.5 million bond is only for water monitoring. There is no bond for cleaning up the problem. And as we’ve learned from other sites across the state, the cost of cleanup could quickly add up to hundreds of millions of dollars.

It’s time for Montanans to tell DEQ to get busy and force PPL to clean up its mess, before Montana attorneys find themselves in some far off bankruptcy courtroom… again.

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