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IEEFA U.S.: Post-coal cleanup could be a job-creating lifeline for Colstrip, similar communities

April 18, 2019
Karl Cates and Seth Feaster

A federal court ruling last week will likely result in stricter standards for wastewater released by coal plants and is just the latest reminder of the workforce requirements that will be an offshoot of the massive cleanup still to come across the industry.

The ruling “dealt a fresh blow to the operators of coal-fired power plants,” according to S&P Global Market Intelligence,  may now “have to spend millions of dollars more to comply with the EPA’s effluent limitations guidelines for steam power plants.”

The S&P Global analysis reinforces research published last month by the Northern Plains Resource Council that plumbs the potential in a post-coal reclamation economy in and around Colstrip, Mont., where the Colstrip Power Plant—one of the largest still in operation nationally—in all probability will be completely phased out over the next few years (two of the plant’s four units will be retired in 2022 and the remaining ones will be under growing pressure to follow suit).

Colstrip’s closure will open the door to creating what the Northern Plains Resource Council project —led by researcher Kate French—concludes could be hundreds of reclamation jobs for years to come (report: “Doing It Right II,” and  underlying research). The study follows one published jointly last year by the Council and the local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Some excerpts from “Doing It Right II”:

  • “Robust cleanup creates hundreds of good-paying jobs, permanently repairs local groundwater, and stimulates broad economic prosperity for the local community.”
  • “A cleanup plan that ensures coal ash is stored in a dry location high above the aquifer is the best outcome for both the Colstrip community and the environment.”
  • “A project that involves excavating coal ash, dewatering it, and permanently repairing the groundwater will create hundreds of jobs–jobs that should be first offered to the local workforce.”

The central takeaway of the report is that there are more jobs in Colstrip reclamation than are commonly acknowledged, especially by the owners of the plant—Talen Montana LLC, PacifiCorp, Puget Sound Energy Inc., Portland General Electric Company, Avista Corporation, and NorthWestern Corporation—who are responsible for the cleanup.

During the first 10 years of reclamation, the “Doing It Right” research foresees a requisite workforce that would rely on an average of 218.2 full-time employees each year. The “Talen Plan,” as the owners’ cleanup scheme is known, would require, by comparison, an average annual workforce of 91.6 workers.

The difference lies in the end result. The Talen Plan would cap Colstrip’s 800-acre coal-ash site in place, where it could potentially pollute water supplies that are used by ranchers, tribal populations, households and businesses of all kinds. “Doing It Right,” would require excavation and removal of coal ash to “high-and-dry” spots to protect the region’s groundwater.

THE STUDY’S FINDINGS ARE PERTINENT TO MANY AT-RISK COAL-PLANT COMMUNITIES REGIONALLY AND NATIONALLY, including in Colorado and New Mexico and those who rely on the Navajo Generating Station (NGS) in Arizona and its fuel-source Kayenta Mine. The imminent shutdown this year of NGS and Kayenta will eliminate some 700 jobs in a tribal area that, like Colstrip, cannot afford such losses to employment.

Both plants are located in small towns and of strikingly similar size in terms of generation capacity (NGS can produce 2,250 megawatts of power, Colstrip is a 2,094-MW plant) and age (both were commissioned in the 1970s).

Granted, the post-coal economic possibilities at Colstrip and NGS-Kayenta do not invite an apples-to-apples comparison. Site remediation plans at NGS currently involve capping dry-ash waste in place, which  would not require the same proportion of labor as Colstrip’s “Doing it Right” cleanup. However, the cleanup that will be required at Kayenta Mine is a separate proposition that will demand a larger workforce.

NGS-Kayenta is just one of many communities that will be shaken in the months and years to come by the accelerating trend toward more coal plant retirements, a shift that is gaining momentum—and occurring much faster than local economic planning is taking into account.

Karl Cates is an IEEFA research editor. Seth Feaster is an IEEFA data analyst.

Related items:

IEEFA report: Fast-emerging opportunity in Navajo-Hopi Transition Impact Investment Fund

IEEFA report: Coal Outlook 2019

IEEFA Arizona: ‘Post-coal reclamation economy’ seen after closure of Navajo Generating Station and Kayenta Mine

Karl Cates

Former IEEFA Transition Policy Analyst Karl Cates has been an editor for Bloomberg LP, an editor for the New York Times, and a consultant to the Treasury Department-sanctioned community development financial institution (CDFI) industry.

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Seth Feaster

Seth Feaster is an Energy Data Analyst whose work focuses on the coal industry and the U.S. power sector.

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