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Mark Fix

Mark Fix

Were you as shocked as I was to read that Talen, the operator and part owner of the Colstrip power plant says it set aside zero for cleanup when the plants retire?

And now in a thinly veiled act of theatrics, Talen is suing Pennsylvania Power and Light — the very corporation that created Talen precisely to hand off liabilities — for money to do the cleanup and make good on worker pension and benefit obligations. It isn’t believable that Talen just now discovered these Colstrip cleanup liabilities.

I looked back at the Associated Press article written in June of 2015, when PPL spun off Talen, and this is what the article said:

“Talen spokesman David Hoffman said the new corporation has the financial resources to deal with the issues it's inherited at Colstrip...

“‘I can assure you that whatever obligations PPL Montana has are now transferred to Talen. Talen is a pretty healthy and large company that's going to be able to handle those kind of obligations,’ he said.”

Is this lawsuit a trial balloon by Talen to see if decision-makers and the public will allow them to abandon their ethical and financial obligations to Colstrip workers, area ranchers, and Rosebud County residents? This move fulfills every stereotype about out-of-touch, wealthy industrialists looking to see what they can get away with. It reflects a perverse, anti-American business philosophy that feels profits should always be privatized but losses should be paid by workers and taxpayers.

The power plant owners have made billions from Colstrip operations. They are legally required to clean up the massive contamination and to cover the pensions promised to their workers.

I am a rancher who lives in southeastern Montana and a past chair of Northern Plains Resource Council, an organization that works for common sense conservation that protects family-based agriculture. As a rancher, I know firsthand that clean groundwater is essential to agriculture. Anyone in Rosebud County who depends on groundwater should be worried by the alarming and growing contamination from Talen’s coal ash ponds, which are leaking 200 million gallons per year into the groundwater. Coal ash leaches lead, selenium, boron, and arsenic into water that livestock, fish, and game animals consume. This is a serious problem that demands a serious solution.

That’s why Northern Plains and Colstrip power plant workers began talking two years ago - to figure out what we could do together for the good of everyone including workers, ranchers, and Rosebud County residents.

Together we studied coal ash pond sites across the country to see how responsible cleanup can affect job creation, especially given Colstrip Units 1 & 2 are set to close by 2022. Our research determined that removing the coal ash from the worst leaking ponds is the best way to stop the contamination plume, plus it would create many good-paying jobs in Colstrip that will last beyond the life of units 1 and 2.

Removing the coal ash mess takes work, and that work creates jobs. Responsible cleanup with ash removal also fulfills an obligation to the workers and community who have supported plant owners and operators as they’ve made mountains of money.

However, the lawsuits filed by Talen Montana last week attempt to shield their business partner, Riverstone Holdings LLC, from the financial responsibilities of cleanup, pensions, and other liabilities. Absurdly, they are suing the very company that created them, PPL, claiming their own progenitor should have set aside funds for these business costs.

Talen and Riverstone are responsible for their own financial decisions just as they’re responsible for cleaning up their coal ash mess. It’s up to Montanans to hold these companies accountable and ensure they uphold their end of the deal. It’s time to tell Talen, “It’s your mess, and you’re the one who needs to do it right and clean it up.”

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Mark Fix ranches along the Tongue River south of Miles City. He is a member and past chair of Northern Plains Resource Council.

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