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True colors

Schweitzer gets it wrong on hazardous waste, again



Back when Gov. Brian Schweitzer made his run for Conrad Burns' seat in the U.S. Senate, he was full of fire and brimstone on how Burns was a corporate pawn. In fact, Schweitzer told a packed crowd at the Montana Wilderness Association's annual meeting at the time that "the real treasure in Montana is the land, not what lies beneath it."

This week, from his bully pulpit as the chair of the Western Governors' Association, and sounding more like a coal lobbyist than a governor, Schweitzer declared opposition to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation of toxic ash produced by coal-fired power plants, saying it should be left up to the states. Like last week, when the governor declared that using natural resource damage funds to move the Montana Historical Society to Butte would be a "win-win," you have to wonder why Schweitzer just doesn't seem to understand the very real problems associated with industrial hazardous waste.

In his pronouncement this week, Schweitzer said if the EPA moved ahead with regulations to classify coal ash as hazardous waste it would undercut "effective regulation" by Western states. He was joined by fellow coal-booster, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, who says such regulation would hurt coal-fired generation and wind up costing ratepayers more money.

By this time in his tenure, it's no secret that Schweitzer has become one of the biggest supporters of coal-fired energy in the nation. His pledge to protect the "real treasure" in Montana long ago forgotten, our governor decided to make a name for himself as a coal promoter, and did so with such vigor that the East Coast media dubbed him "The Coal Cowboy."

As many Montanans will recall, at first Schweitzer spent inordinate amounts of time and energy flying around the nation trying to convince people that the answer to our gross over-consumption of petroleum was to simply make liquid fuels such as diesel and jet fuel from coal. All it would take, we were told, is a $10 billion plant, an unproven technology of carbon capture and sequestration and, most importantly, Montana's vast reserves of coal.

We were assured that to kick off this wonderful new future for Montana as an energy colony for the nation, dignitaries from the Air Force would be flying into Great Falls in preparation for turning Malmstrom into a coal-to-liquids facility to produce fuel for the military.

But that didn't happen.

Deftly segueing into a new rap, the Coal Cowboy then turned to more conventional uses of coal—namely, burning it in traditional power plants. But in a laughable charade to convince us that coal could somehow be clean, he began to concentrate on where and how we could stuff millions of tons of carbon dioxide from coal plants underground. To that end, he is willing to use Montanans on the Hi-Line as guinea pigs in an experiment to fill the area's subterranean interstices with CO2 from a Canadian power plant.

That hasn't happened yet, either, but the Schweitzer schtick goes on and on.

Now, he wants us to believe that states are capable of "effective regulation" of the 130 million tons of toxic coal ash produced annually from the nation's more than 500 coal-fired power generation facilities.

Most folks recall the environmental nightmare when 1.2 billion gallons of coal-ash sludge blew out of containment in Tennessee last year. Streams were destroyed, homes inundated with toxic sludge and the lives of nearby residents permanently altered. The long-term environmental damages are still being investigated and will take years and an estimated billion dollars to repair. According to an EPA report, the spill discharged 2.66 million pounds of arsenic, lead, mercury and other pollutants into the Amory River, which is more than the total water pollution output from all of the nation's power plants the previous year.

But no need to look east to the disaster of Appalachia when we have our own coal-ash disaster right here in Montana. Schweitzer would have benefited from doing a little research on Colstrip's leaking coal-ash ponds before talking about "effective regulation" by states. Had he done so, he would have discovered that Colstrip-area residents, many of whom work at the mines and associated power plants, have struggled for years with polluted wells and various health effects from the toxins—arsenic, mercury, lead, boron, sulfate, antimony and chromium, among others—that have seeped from Colstrip's coal-ash ponds.

Last year, in response to a 2003 lawsuit, the utilities that own the Colstrip plants paid a $25 million settlement to 57 Montanans who suffered a variety of coal-ash related damages. But that's not the worst of it. According to Montana's Department of Environmental Quality, which is supposed to be doing the "effective regulation" Schweitzer touts, the problem continues as the poisonous plumes spread despite the million-dollar pump-back systems installed by the utilities.

Had the governor bothered to check, he would have found, as stated in a recent report by the Center for Public Integrity, that: "Montana lawmakers have actually loosened key protections preventing coal-ash contamination—first, by exempting on-site disposal from the state's solid-waste regulations; second, by gutting a law meant to manage the siting of coal-fired power plants. Both acts have left the state's Department of Environmental Quality with little authority over this waste."

And that's the problem. State legislators and agencies can and do alter regulations and laws based on political and economic pressures. A federal regulatory structure by the EPA would ensure that states meet at least minimal standards for protection of health and the environment.

Montanans are now seeing Schweitzer's true colors in his continuing attempts to exploit the state's energy resources to the max. His support for more pipelines, more transmission lines, more coal mining and oil drilling make earlier claims of "clean and green" laughable. In truth, those colors are more like a starling these days—coal black with a thin rainbow sheen of petroleum distillates.

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at

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