After coal is burned to generate electricity, it leaves behind a toxic waste ash. The coal ash contains chemicals like arsenic, lead, and selenium. This toxic waste is disposed of, often in open-air pits, where it frequently spills or seeps into the groundwater.
Coal ash is not currently subject to federal protections, and coal ash in Montana has an incredibly weak regulatory program that makes coal ash practically unregulated. Coal ash has been exempted from both the solid waste statutes and Montana’s Major Facility Siting Act. There have been several unsuccessful attempts to close these loopholes in the state legislature.
Montana generates approximately 1.8 million tons of coal ash annually, with the largest source coming from Pennsylvania Power’s Colstrip plant. The Pennsylvania Power plant has nine ponds, and the containment system has, over several decades, repeatedly been documented to contaminate the groundwater. The leaking ponds at Colstrip continue to contaminate the groundwater with boron, sulfate, and dissolved solids.
Coal ash is also generated from the Lewis and Clark Station (stored in dry landfills in Richland County), the Hardin Generator Project (stored in landfills in Big Horn County), and the J.E. Corette Plant (stored in ponds, and then sent off site where it is reused).