Colstrip coal units shut down after failing emissions tests

Posted at 6:47 AM, Jul 26, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-26 08:47:25-04

COLSTRIP – The entire Colstrip Generating Station has been idle for the past month, with two units down for regular maintenance and two for failing state tests for air pollution, according to Montana state regulators.

News of air compliance problems with Units 3 and 4 first became known in early July when plant operator Talen Energy notified Montana Department of Environmental Quality officials that the two newer plants failed particulate matter tests for emitting Hazardous Air Pollutants, or HAPS. 

Those are pollutants such as lead, cadmium, and chromium that are known to cause cancer or other serious health issues.

Talen spokesman Todd Martin said Units 3 and 4 were immediately shut down so they could figure out the problem. Since then, the two plants have been re-fired, but only to allow for more detailed air testing.

Jeni Garcin, a DEQ spokeswoman, told MTN that Talen has 60 days to submit a full report on the incident. The agency anticipates receiving that test report by Aug. 27 and will then assess Talen’s compliance with its air-quality permits, she said.

The plant’s two older units, 1 and 2, were shut down separately for regular maintenance.

The shutdown is a good news/bad news scenario, depending on who you talk to.

If the plants must go idle, it’s the perfect time of year because other power sources are available, said Colstrip Sen. Duane Ankney. 

"It couldn’t have come at a better time because there is an overabundance of hydro throughout northwest Montana, Oregon. There’s a lot of hydro out there anyway. So if you want to see a silver lining, the silver lining is that this didn’t happen in December or January," Ankney said.

But Anne Hedges with the Montana Environmental Information Center said the opposite.

"I have never heard a utility say that they don’t need all the power possible in summer months. Northwestern says it again and again and again that it is trending to be a summer peaking utility. It is the end of July. That’s where we are at right now. So I think Senator Ankey is wishful(ly) thinking," Hedges said.

Ankney also noted that Talen did the right thing when the company recognized the emissions problem.

“It’s important to know that this was all self-reported. When Talen saw they were going out of compliance, they reported it, and have been working on it for the last three weeks,” he said.

This temporary shutdown comes as Colstrip faces potential permanent closures as its owners transition away from coal. 

As part of a settlement over past air-pollution problems, units 1 and 2 are scheduled for shutdown no later than 2022.

The future of units 3 and 4 is a little murkier, with at least one owner’s depreciation schedule targeting 2027 but no official date.