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Court Strikes Down Coal Pollution Rule, Environmentalists And Coal Industry Cheer

Colstrip power plant, Colstrip Montana.
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Colstrip power plant

A federal appeals court on Tuesday struck down a rule meant to reduce haze from coal burned in Montana.

Environmentalists were critical that rule wasn’t strong enough and hope it will be revised and strengthened. Meanwhile, the coal industry is calling the ruling a victory."Absolutely. This is a huge win for us, and for the workers and the people who rely on the plant and the coal industry at Colstrip and all of Montana."

That's David Hoffman of Talen Energy, a spin-off of PPL Montana which operates the 2,100 megawatt Colstrip power plant. It's one of the largest coal-fired plants in the West and creates electricity sold by utilities in Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

But the deputy director of the Montana Environmental Information Center, Anne Hedges, says she’s also thrilled with the ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

"We couldn't be happier," Hedges says. "In this event, which rarely happens, both of us win."

How can two organizations which couldn't be further apart on one single issue be equally as pleased with the same court ruling? Because neither side liked the rule that was struck down - for different reasons. Now, the Environmental Protection Agency has to write a new rule, and both sides are confident it will be more to their liking.

Here's some background. The Clean Air Act requires older coal plants to use the best available technology to reduce pollution that’s bad for human health and creates visibility-reducing haze.

Industry maintains that the 2012 haze rules struck down Tuesday were too stringent.

EPA says they would have reduced pollutants from Colstrip by more than 12,000 tons annually, at an estimated cost of $83 million.

But the 9th Circuit this week said requiring Talen Energy to install more pollution control equipment would have been an arbitrary expense that wouldn't ensure less coal-related haze.

Talen's David Hoffman says the rule the court struck down was crafted by EPA and environmental groups to solve a problem that doesn't exist.

"That would have imposed unreasonable costs to invest in equipment at Colstrip that would have artificially driven-up the cost of producing that electricity to make coal less reliable. It's just another part of the organized war on coal that these extreme environmental groups are waging," Hoffman says.

Hoffman estimates Talen would have been forced to shell-out at least $100-million to comply with EPA's rule; an expense he says that would have done nothing to improve regional air quality. Hoffman says Colstrip is already a state-of-the-art facility that's spent million to reduce emissions.

"It's sheer rubbish," Hedges responds.

MEIC's Anne Hedges says Colstrip can, and hopefully will be forced to install more efficient equipment than it has, when EPA issues its revised rules.

"In fact, the Hardin generating station in Montana has that equipment, and we would like Colstrip to install that same equipment. There's 300 and some facilities across the country that have installed that haze-reducing pollution control equipment. Colstrip is not one of them."

Talen Energy's David Hoffman predicts the agency will return with a better proposal.

"What they did in their decision was lay down some pretty strict guidelines. I think if and when another rule is proposed and perhaps enacted, it's gonna be based on something concrete and that can be articulated and that makes sense, that's rational. This one wasn't."

Anne Hedges says MEIC is grateful the EPA now has a chance to take a second look at it's haze rules.

"EPA could come back with anything it wants. We believe that the facts will prove us right; that this technology is available, that Colstrip's emissions are enormous and they can be reduced economically and should be reduced to both protect human health and (reduce) haze."

EPA has not announced when it will issue a revised rule.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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