In Montana, clean water is the lifeblood of any successful ranch. I know this, because I am a fourth-generation rancher in southeastern Montana. My great-grandfather, a Scottish immigrant, settled along the banks of Rosebud Creek in the 1880s because of its abundance of clean water, both aboveground and below it.
I'm sure he never dreamed that, 100 years later, pollution from nearby coal-fired power plants would put everything he'd built in jeopardy.
In Colstrip, about 120 miles east of Billings, construction of four coal-fired power plants began in the 1970s and 1980s. Along with these power plants came huge coal-ash ponds and big open pits filled with coal ash, the toxic remains from burning coal. Coal ash is full of dangerous chemicals such as arsenic, lead, selenium, chromium and mercury, and it constitutes our nation's second-largest industrial waste. Ranchers in my area were concerned that our water would be contaminated by this pollution, but we were always assured that the waste ponds would be lined with impermeable materials and would not leak.
That was just the first of many lies we were told.
One coal-ash pond, built in the 1990s, has failed 18 times, affecting the people of Colstrip. Testing of a reservoir adjacent to another coal-ash pond has shown sulfate levels to be at 2,000 parts per millionhigher than the toxic threshold for cattle. In 2009, a group of 57 homeowners were awarded $25 million after successfully suing Pennsylvania-based PPL, owner of the power plants, for contaminating drinking-water wells in homes and businesses just north of town and just 10 miles from my ranch. But all of us worry that the water in our community continues to be contaminated by toxic coal ash, and the power companies, the state government and the federal government aren't doing anything to stop it.
In 2008, a massive coal-ash pond failed in Kingston, Tenn., spilling over a billion gallons of toxic coal ash into a nearby river and the surrounding area. Three hundred acres were poisoned and two dozen homes were damaged or destroyed. Miraculously, no one was injured, but residents of that small town have been forced to move in order to avoid the coal-ash deluge. That catastrophe inspired the Environmental Protection Agency to introduce the first-ever federally enforceable safeguards against coal ash. Nearly four years after the Kingston event, Montanans still wait for those protections from coal ash to be applied to our community.
That delay could become permanent if a group of zealous members of Congress get their way. Congress is considering a transportation bill that includes an unrelated amendment that would prohibit the EPA from ever setting federal coal-ash protections. The amendment would make coal ash less regulated than coffee grounds and banana peels. Republican Rep. David McKinley of West Virginia led the industry-favored legislation. The controversial group American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) adopted a resolution in 2010 that mirrors the legislation McKinley proposed. Tacking his dirty amendment to a must-pass bill that is designed to ensure the safety of our roads and communities insults the millions of Americansmyself includedwho live near coal-ash dumping grounds.
When will enough be enough?
The EPA says that it has identified 46 coal-ash dumpsites where containment failure will result in the loss of human life. Already, nearly 200 coal-ash sites around the country have been found to be contaminated by arsenic, selenium, mercury, hexavalent chromium or other toxic chemicals. This is water that people fish in, swim in, boat on and depend on. I know that my cattle drink from ponds containing chemicals from coal ash.
This threat is realand even as the EPA moves slowly to enact federal safeguards, some people in Congress want to make sure those safeguards never happen at all. Yet it is clear that the status quo is a failure that makes the land and the people who live on it sick. It's time that our government becomes a government that is truly of the people, for the people and by the peoplewith big polluters no longer getting a free pass.
Clint McRae is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a rancher in southeastern Montana.