Health officials applauding new EPA rule that would limit toxic emissions at Colstrip

Colstrip Plant
Posted at 5:51 PM, May 14, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-15 11:51:53-04

Medical experts in Montana cheered Tuesday a recent proposal from the EPA to tighten air pollution standards on power plants, which would have a huge impact on the Colstrip coal-fired power plant.

Billings Clinic pulmonologist Robert Merchant was among the many voicing his approval in a virtual news conference hosted by the Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC) Tuesday morning. He said limiting these emissions in Colstrip and around the country will greatly increase air quality.

"My concern, as a pulmonologist, is the health effects of air quality," Merchant said. "Colstrip is not one of the largest emitters, it is the largest emitter (of mercury and arsenic). In fact, it releases 50 percent more of these toxins than anywhere else in the country."

The MEIC has been a leading proponent in Montana for shifting away from carbon energy toward renewables.

Merchant said the plant releases mercury and arsenic at levels much higher than anywhere else in the country. He added that, as a medical professional, those toxins can lead to serious health problems.

"If you care about people's health, it's very alarming," Merchant said. "These are big air plumes, so throughout the region, people are breathing in these emissions and the consequences of that are very scary."

If the proposal, announced earlier this month, is approved as a new regulation, Colstrip would be mandated to update its facilities with devices intended to reduce harmful emissions from getting into the air. Those improvements would likely end up costing close to a half billion dollars.

The price of the upgrades are a big reason why former Colstrip lawmaker Duane Ankney, who is one of the coal plant's biggest advocates, aren't thrilled with the proposed new EPA rule.

"People are very concerned about what's going to happen next," Ankney told MTN in an online video interview Tuesday afternoon. "The sense of not knowing what's going to happen next is certainly on everybody's mind."

Ankney, who served in both the Montana House and Senate as a Republican, added that he does not believe that the air quality is an issue, with a quality checker located downwind from the town.

"I think a lot of these concerns over health issues are not well founded," Ankney said.

The biggest fear for Ankney and the town is the potential loss of jobs. In 2020, the plant's oldest Units 1 & 2 shut down, largely because the plant's owners said they were no longer economically viable. The plant was built in the 1970s, largely to supply power to the Pacific Northwest. However, utilities in Washington and Oregon have been pushing to get out of the fossil fuel industry, marking the end of their investment into Colstrip as early as 2027.

Advocates for the plant fear its closure will cost the town hundreds of high-paying jobs.

"I mean there's even concerns that if the plant closes that Colstrip would be without water," Ankney said.

Butte-based NorthWestern Energy is Colstrip's largest shareholder and has increased its investment in coal power over the past year.

"The Colstrip plant is well maintained," NorthWestern CEO Brad Bird wrote in a statement. "The inability to utilize Colstrip... will likely push our already stressed transmission system beyond its capability."

The loss of the plant is something Merchant doesn't want to see, but he believes something needs to change.

"We need energy," Merchant said. "We need it to run our businesses, to go skiing, we absolutely need it. Yet, as a society we need to do it in a way that harms the fewest people."

Related: Montana congressional delegation concerned that EPA rule is bad for Colstrip