There is a limited amount of money set aside for the cleanup of the Montana Pole Plant. How likely is it that the set aside money will run out? What happens if the money in the cash out account runs out? Will the cleanup quality be lessened? I think there is justifiable deep concern that the money will run out. We need clearly definitive answers from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality now!
1. Grave doubts exist about whether there will be enough money. The state asserts that there will be enough but the cleanup as a waste-in-place solution must last decades into the future based on costs calculated last century. Let’s do the math. $29 million remains in the cash out fund. The yearly cost of operating the water treatment plant, only one part of the remedy, ranges on the low end to $400,000 per year and the high end to $1 million. The necessary life of the water plant, at a minimum, is 46 years. So, splitting the difference, let us say the yearly cost is $700,000 over 46 years that would then be: $32.2 million. (If the cost is $1 million a year, we are looking at $46 million, which would make the deficit much higher.) Add to that the cost of the cap construction is around $2 million, the switch to a cap instead of bioremediation is around $1.5 million and added to that will be the cost of removing contamination from under the Interstate highway, which could be $7 million. So far, we have reached $43 million. Subtracting that from the $29 million remaining, we have a deficit of about $14 million. If the water treatment plant tab is $1 million a year, the deficit would be $28 million. That deficit does not include the cost of operation and maintenance of the site. Also, the water treatment plant will likely have to go longer than 46 years. Remember too, things always seem to cost the government more than planned. Who will pay for the cost overrun? Will the cleanup be compromised? We have a significant potential shortfall.
2. While, if the money proves to be inadequate, there are reopeners provided in both the consent decree for the pole plant and the 1996 Memorandum of Agreement between the EPA and MDEQ, a $6 million immediate, upfront cost, to be borne by the agencies, will be incurred for reopening the cash out settlement. Here it becomes tricky. It is estimated that the major portion of the $6 million reopener would be borne by EPA and about 20% by MDEQ. MDEQ has a legally binding agreement with EPA to complete the cleanup as specified in the ROD and CD for the site. (Above this $6 million reopener fee the state would have to come up with, roughly, between $8 and
$22 million in new money to complete the cleanup.)
3. EPA could seek to obtain that money from the Superfund Priority Panel where sites all over the country compete for funding. This would be likely in that this is an ongoing project and EPA would not abandon an ongoing cleanup. But the state says that it would have to seek a legislative appropriation for its portion. Given the current political climate, approval by the Legislature is far from assured. What happens if the state can’t find $1.2 million for its reopener portion? EPA might foot the whole bill. Or the settlement for the site could be reopened and EPA could go after the PRPS, who could challenge in court. While the courts usually side with the EPA, victory is uncertain.
So, there remain major and significant cost uncertainties. Unless you are the Oracle at Delphi, predicting the future is always uncertain, particularly when it comes to monetary issues. There is real cause for concern, big cause. It does appear that it seems that it is more likely than not that additional monies could be found should that be a necessity. But that is far from certain. It looks like there will be a significant cost overrun. MDEQ should not gloss over this as they have. Full public transparency, which is missing from the state, is fully warranted and should be provided.
Dr. John W. Ray teaches classes at Montana Tech in public policy and political science. He is a member of the board of Citizens Technical Environmental Committee and has been following the pole plant situation for decades. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of CTEC or Montana Tech.