PPL Montana sues EPA to block release of Colstrip plant data

PPL Montana LLC, operator of the coal-fired Colstrip power plant in Montana, filed suit April 23 against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in an effort to halt any EPA turnover of sensitive Colstrip data to environmental groups.

PPL Montana, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana, is seeking preliminary and permanent injunctive relief and declaratory relief to enjoin EPA and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson from releasing or disseminating certain data in its possession related to capital improvement projects undertaken at Colstrip. The agency gathered that information by using PPL Montana’s response to an EPA request made pursuant to Section 114(a) of the Clean Air Act.

As set forth in an April 6 letter, EPA intends to release some of that information in response to a request made by Sierra Club and the Montana Environmental Information Center under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the lawsuit noted. The aggregated information on capital improvement projects scheduled for release by the agency is exempt from disclosure under FOIA because the information constitutes confidential “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person” under federal code, the power company said.

“PPL Montana will suffer substantial and irreparable harm if the aggregated capital improvement projects information for the Colstrip plant is released because the useful life of the individual units and likely replacement dates for capital components would be discernable or capable of being deduced or extrapolated from such aggregated information, which would allow competitors to vie for market share through aggressive pricing, and to strategically time and improve their own capital improvement processes, all to PPL Montana’s detriment,” the company explained. “For these reasons, PPL Montana should be granted the requested injunctive and declaratory relief.”

PPL Montana is a wholly-owned, indirect subsidiary of PPL Corp. (NYSE: PPL). PPL Montana’s principal place of business is Billings, Montana. It generates electricity at its coal-fired and hydroelectric power plants in Montana.

In December 2000 and November 2003, EPA sent letters to PPL Montana requesting information to evaluate the company’s compliance with the Clean Air Act at the small, coal-fired Corette power plant in Billings and Colstrip in Rosebud County. EPA indicated that it was authorized under Section 114(a) of the Clean Air Act to obtain the information. PPL Montana said it made disclosures of the requested information to EPA. In its responses, PPL Montana said it asserted that some of the disclosed information constituted confidential business information.

PPL Montana received a letter from Cynthia Reynolds in EPA’s Region 8 office in Denver dated June 20, 2011. In that letter, EPA indicated that it had received a FOIA request for certain records pertaining to the Colstrip and Corette plants. EPA requested that PPL Montana substantiate its claims that the information sought by the FOIA requestor was confidential as set forth in its answers to the 2000 and 2003 data requests. PPL Montana responded with its substantiation of the basis for nondisclosure on July 15, 2011. In its substantiation letter, PPL Montana objected to release of the document which is the subject of this lawsuit pertaining to capital improvements at the Colstrip plant and preserved its objection that it is confidential and exempt from disclosure pursuant to a FOIA exemption.

On April 9, having received no follow-up inquiries about the adequacy of its submission and substantiation of the document as confidential business information, PPL Montana said it received a letter from EPA relaying its final determination concerning the confidentiality of the FOIA-requested information regarding capital improvements at the Colstrip plant. EPA concluded that the information produced by PPL Montana in response to the agency’s Section 114 requests for the Colstrip plant – for which PPL Montana persisted in its objection to disclosure – was not confidential, could not be withheld pursuant to any FOIA exemption, and therefore would have to be released. EPA’s Final Determination stated that the agency would release the non-exempt information on the tenth working day after the day PPL Montana received the determination unless the company commenced an action in federal court to obtain review of the Final Determination and injunctive relief against the release of the information.

The Colstrip power plant, located east of Billings, is made up of four coal-fired units capable of producing a total of up to 2,094 MW of electricity. Units 1 and 2 began commercial operation in 1975 and 1976, and Units 3 and 4 started in 1984 and 1986. Units 1 and 2 each have about 307 MW of generating capacity; PPL has 50% ownership of each.  Units 3 and 4 each have about 740 MW of generating capacity; PPL has 30% ownership in Unit 3 and no ownership in Unit 4. PPL’s share in the plant’s generating capacity is 529 MW. The plant is owned by PPL Montana, as well as Puget Sound Energy, Portland General ElectricAvista Corp., PacifiCorp and NorthWestern Energy LLC.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.