Colstrip: The dangerous coal plant in Montana that provides Oregon power.

By Robin Everett of Portland, Oregon. Robin is an advocate with the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign.

Imagine not being able to trust that the water you drink. Imagine not being able to even bathe in your own water for fear of getting sick. This is a real danger many Americans face daily due to our dependence on a dirty and dangerous form of energy: coal.

For decades, the coal industry has told the American people that coal ash is safe, but we know the truth. If the BP Oil Disaster has taught us anything, it's that we can't just take the polluter's word for it anymore.

Coal ash is the by-product of burning coal for electricity, and it contains a long list of dangerous toxins. More than 150 million tons of coal ash are created each year and dumped into thousands of ponds and dumps nationwide, many of which lack basic safety controls. Every day thousands of Americans who live near these storage sites are put at risk.

Communities across the country are exposed to heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and mercury seeping from ash storage sites into our drinking water, rivers and streams. Exposure to coal ash toxins can lead to cancer, birth defects, gastro-intestinal illnesses, and reproductive problems. And yet, coal ash is currently less strictly controlled than household garbage.

There are no federal regulations to control its disposal, and state laws governing coal ash are often weak or non-existent. More than two-thirds of all states, for example, don’t even require basic protections like liners to prevent coal ash from contaminating waterways, or groundwater monitoring to discover a leak if it occurs.

Here in Oregon, we get a portion of our power from the notoriously dangerous Colstrip coal plant in eastern Montana. Owned in part by Portland General Electric and Pacific Power, Colstrip is home to one of the worst coal-ash storage sites in the country. Indeed, Colstrip’s ash pond is on the EPA’s list of 44 highly dangerous coal-ash dumps nationwide.

In 2003, it was discovered that the coal-ash ponds at Colstrip were leaching dangerous heavy metals such as boron into the groundwater. Boron is lethal at 2 milligrams per liter, but in Colstrip, well water has turned up with boron concentrations 13 times the legal limit. Fifty-seven town residents sued the Colstrip plant for poisoning their water, and in May 2008 they won a settlement of $25 million. However, the ponds are still leaking, and the affected residents have stopped using their own wells and have switched over to city water provided by the operators of the plant, PPL Montana, from the Yellowstone River.

Clearly, current state standards are inadequate. Thankfully, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognized the very real health and environmental risks posed by toxic coal ash and just proposed new rules to protect communities and ensure the safe disposal of coal ash.

EPA has proposed two options and is seeking public comment on both. One would continue the status quo – establishing suggested state guidelines, not federally enforceable rules. The other would recognize that coal ash is substantially more dangerous than household garbage and would regulate it as the toxic substance it is, protecting public health and waterways across the country.

Effective coal-ash regulations must require basic protections for communities such as composite liners, water run-off controls, groundwater monitoring, and financial assurance that companies pay to clean up what they pollute. Protection still not afforded to the residents of Colstrip, Montana. Only strong federal safeguards can ensure this happens across the country.

Unfortunately, as expected, the coal industry is fighting to maintain the status quo on coal ash, backing the utterly inadequate option of establishing unenforceable guidelines for states. Coal use from cradle to the grave is dirty, dangerous, and damaging, but the coal industry continues spending millions on lobbying to retain and create more loopholes and exemptions for themselves.

As purchasers of power from the dirty and dangerous Colstrip coal plant we have a responsibility to speak out in favor of treating coal ash as toxic waste and encourage EPA to quickly implement the strong federal safeguards to protect the communities in Montana that bear the true cost of our energy use.

Please send your comment to the EPA today.

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    It's mind-boggling that a substance as toxic as coal ash is currently unregulated at the federal level. Oregon's dependence on coal is putting communities at risk - both in our own state and elsewhere. Now is the time for the EPA to stand up to industry groups and place the strongest possible standards on coal ash pollution!

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    It is time the EPA truly begins protecting the environment and the public. We need to speak up and tell the EPA that coal ash needs to be federally regulated as the toxic substance it has proven to be. We can no longer count on the states to stand up to the coal industry and care for our health and that of the environment--and, we certainly cannot expect the coal industry to regulate itself. If the BP oil and Tennessee coal ash disasters have have taught us anything, it is that we cannot trust the polluters to keep us safe!

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    I, for one, have a problem with the blase manner in which coal ash is regarded in America. The likely happening that heavy (very poisonous/toxic) metals, think mercury, arsenic, cadmium, and.......the list goes on to include many others that are a substantial part of the stuff will make their presence known in rivers, groundwater, and lakes should NOT be shrugged off, as is the case today in most of America and elsewhere.

    Now the EPA is on the right track with its proposal to classify the stuff as a toxic substance subject to regulations regarding its storage (there really is NO means to "dispose" of it short of ejection into outerspace or the sun!). It remains for the EPA to have the gumption to carry through and I encourage them to do so.

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    What is mind-boggling to me is the lack of basic understanding by the writer of this article and the commenters. Clue for you people, neither boron or arsenic are metals or heavy. If you can't get basic chemistry right, how can you claim to understand the issues?

    And it's an interesting thing, the very aquifers people tap for wells flow through the coal seams. Funny, no one seemed to care that for millenia these very components in the fly ash were leaching into the water supply naturally, but when they leak from a fly-ash bond, oh no, they are toxic waste.

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      I live in Colstrip. The only people who have moved from the affected area are a couple who retired and took the settlement money. Everyone else still lives there, unaffected. The Sierra Club is relying on fear and ignorance Thanks for a dose of sanity Larry.

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