In the tiny Montana town of Colstrip, people knew the Moose Lodge well water tasted bad. But it would be years before the community learned why.

Waste ponds at a massive coal plant nearby had leaked over the decades, contaminating wells in residential neighborhoods and groundwater under cattle grazing lands, as lawsuits would eventually allege. According to an excellent investigation last year by The Center for Public Integrity (CPI), some who drank the well water got diarrhea; another resident stopped drinking her strange-looking tap water after her cat would no longer lap it up.

The contamination came from a coal plant, but not from the usual air pollutants. Toxic materials that don’t go out the stack—arsenic, cadmium, lead, selenium, mercury—get left behind in ash after the coal is burned. Yet coal ash has been wildly unregulated in some places. Despite containing chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects, stomach ailments, fish kills, and livestock deaths, coal ash has been dumped in unlined lagoons, pits and landfills, some of which inevitably leak. It’s also added to concrete, wallboard, fill, and other building materials, as the CPI investigation lays out.

But why should someone in Bellevue or Yakima or Portland or Astoria care about veterinarian David Clark, one of the Colstrip residents who argued his well was polluted by a leaking waste pond above his home? Because, as we detailed in an earlier post, people in communities across the Northwest are buying the dirty coal power that was the source of his woe.

The Colstrip story is a reminder that the power that runs your home is more than a stream of anonymous electrons. It’s generated in a particular place—by a dam, a gas plant, a coal burner, a wind turbine—that may be hundreds of miles away. And your power, especially if it comes from burning coal, can have real consequences for people and places you may never have even heard of.

Owners of the Colstrip Generating Station—Puget Sound Energy, Portland General Electric, PacifiCorp, Avista Corp. and PPL Montana—agreed to pay $25 million in 2008 to settle a lawsuit in with 57 town residents. They face another legal challenge from local ranching families. To address the problem, they have lined or capped some waste ponds, installed wells to try to recover the pollution, supplied some families with town drinking water, and are poised to embark on a comprehensive investigation and cleanup process overseen by the state.

Colstrip is just one of dozens of places that have been damaged by coal ash waste, and there could be many more. Because state oversight has been inconsistent, or even absent in some places, companies haven’t necessarily had to look for problems. The most visible disaster occurred when a waste pond failed at a Tennessee coal plant in 2008, destroying three homes and flooding 300 acres and two rivers with a wall of wet coal ash. In the wake of that disaster, the the US Environmental Protection Agency is now proposing for the first time to regulate coal ash on a national scale. New standards would require better monitoring, and push coal plants across the country to stop storing waste in the unlined ponds that are most likely to leak.

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  • Colstrip map flickr Sierra ClubThe long list of chemicals dumped in Colstrip’s ash ponds reads like a periodic table. A report released earlier this year by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) and Earthjustice details where some of the chemicals wound up. A contaminated plume from two waste ponds extends more than 1,000 feet towards the town of Colstrip, affecting nearby properties and wells. Other holding ponds southeast of the town in cattle country have also contaminated water supplies, a lawsuit alleges.

    Montana environmental regulators say they are not aware of any proven health effects from the contamination, and that cancer rates in Colstrip are consistent with the rest of the state. According to the EIP report, the most contaminated well at the Moose Lodge – which is no longer used – had boron levels 6 times greater than the EPA’s health advisory for child ingestion of boron in drinking water, as well as sulfate levels at 12 times greater than the EPA’s drinking water advisory. (These are guidelines, however, not enforceable drinking water standards that apply to chemicals such as arsenic or lead, which are considered more dangerous.) In other areas near the ponds, elevated levels of selenium, molybdenum, and total dissolved solids have been found, the report claims. And it also raises questions about whether the contamination was hidden from town residents by various owners of the coal plant.

    Colstrip operator PPL Montana, which bought its ownership stake in 1999, is now trying to contain the problem by collecting and recycling the polluted groundwater with recovery wells. So how well is that working? Here’s how a representative from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality answered that question:

    PPLM has been collecting approximately 355 gallons per minute (370,000 gallons of groundwater per day) from its recovery systems in and around the Colstrip facility. Recovery wells and interception systems seem to be capturing the seepage in many areas. In other areas existing capture systems are being augmented with additional systems being installed.

    For a less circular explanation, we can thank Duane Ankney, a state legislator from Colstrip and plaintiff in the lawsuit that was settled. He told the Associated Press earlier this year that removing the existing contamination in the groundwater would be nearly impossible:

    Once that was leaked into the water table, it’s there and it would take forever to get out. But it looks like they are sincere in trying to take care of the problem. PPL is making an honest attempt going forward.

    Wouldn’t it be easier if we took steps to prevent toxic coal ash from screwing up water supplies in the first place? That’s the conclusion the Obama administration seems to have reached in proposing new federal regulations for coal ash at power plants. But the EPA took the unusual route of proposing two different regulatory paths.

    One would classify coal ash as hazardous. The other—favored by the electricity industry—would regulate it as non-hazardous. For those who want more detail, the distinctions between the two proposals can be found in this chart. Those differences will be robustly debated in the coming months, I’m sure, but either looks to be an improvement over what’s happened in the past.

    If EPA’s proposed rules had been in place 35 years ago, Colstrip residents might not have been drinking dirty water. If, back then, we had treated coal ash as the dangerous waste that it is, then the utilities that power millions of Northwest homes wouldn’t be spending time and money on an environmental cleanup that’s dragged on for years. But even EPA’s coal ash rules are really only a stopgap measure. The better solution would be to pass a comprehensive climate policy that makes burning dirty energy like coal uneconomical. Because investing in clean energy alternatives would be healthier for the economy and for people who’ve already paid a price in towns like Colstrip.

    Coal ash photo and Colstrip map courtesy of Flickr users The Tardigrade and The Sierra Club via a Creative Commons license.