Environmental groups sue over Colstrip coal plant emissions

The Sierra Club said March 6 that it and the Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC) filed a federal lawsuit that day against the owners of the coal-fired Colstrip power plant over alleged Clean Air Act violations.

The owners of the plant include PPL Corp. (NYSE: PPL) and NorthWestern Energy. The Sierra Club and MEIC said they are seeking a court order requiring the Colstrip owners to install modern pollution controls on the “outdated” Montana plant and pay as much as $37,500 per day for alleged violations. Dozens of claims in the lawsuit point to continued operation of Colstrip after illegal alterations made without modernizing pollution controls, a requirement meant to ensure older coal plants do not have an unfair advantage over newer plants with state-of-the-art pollution controls, the groups said.

“Today’s legal action is the latest in our nationwide campaign targeting owners of the nation’s aging coal fleet who continue to skirt their legal obligations. It’s our national priority at the Sierra Club to uphold the health and environmental safeguards promised by the Clean Air Act for more than three decades,” said Bruce Nilles, national director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

The lawsuit said the plant co-owners violated and are violating the Clean Air Act and Montana’s State Implementation Plan (SIP) by:

  • Constructing, altering or modifying the Colstrip plant without complying with the permitting requirements applicable to modifications to existing air pollution sources under the Clean Air Act and the Montana SIP.
  • Operating the modified Colstrip plant without the permits required of modified sources under the Clean Air Act and the Montana SIP.
  • Violating federally-enforceable air pollution permits by, among other things: submitting an erroneous certification of compliance in support of an air pollution permit application for the Colstrip plant, and failing to correct or supplement that application’s erroneous compliance certification; falsely representing compliance with applicable requirements (including the Clean Air Act’s Prevention of Significant Deterioration program requirements and emissions limitations); failing to submit required compliance schedules; and failing to accurately certify the accuracy, completeness and truthfulness of the information in required reports.
  • Violating the limits on the opacity of air pollution emissions set forth in Subparts D and Da of the federal New Source Performance Standards and in air quality permits for the Colstrip plant.

PPL Montana‘s Director of External Affairs, David Hoffman, said March 8 that the plant complies with all applicable emissions limits and that the complaints in the lawsuit about New Source Review issues are meritless, since they involve projects over the years that were clearly routine maintenance and did not trigger NSR provisions.

Colstrip is a large plant with several owners

The Colstrip plant has four coal-fired units capable of producing a total of up to 2,094 MW. Units 1 and 2 began commercial operation in 1975 and 1976, and Units 3 and 4 started operations in 1984 and 1986. Units 1 and 2 each have about 307 MW capacity, with PPL having 50% ownership of each, said the PPL website. Units 3 and 4 each have about 740 MW of capacity and 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.

Coal for the plant comes from the neighboring Rosebud mine of Westmoreland Coal.

“The plant employs about 360 people and is owned by PPL Montana LLC, a subsidiary of PPL Generation LLC, as well as Puget Sound Energy Inc., Portland General Electric CompanyAvista Corporation, PacifiCorp, and NorthWestern Energy LLC,” said the PPL website about Colstrip.

“Low-sulfur coal and state-of-the-art scrubbers restrict sulfur dioxide emissions to less than levels required by both Phase One and Phase Two of the Clean Air Act,” the PPL website added about Colstrip’s emissions. “The plant also meets Environmental Protection Agency standards for nitrogen oxides emission.”

Appeals already in play at EPA and in court over Colstrip emissions

In September 2012, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a final regional haze Federal Implementation Plan (FIP) for Montana that includes requirements for new separated overfire air (SOFA) and selective non-catalytic reduction (SNCR) equipment on Colstrip Units 1-2 to control NOx, and lime injection and an additional scrubber vessel for each unit to control SO2.

PPL noted in its Feb. 28 annual Form 10-K report that the haze plan is under appeal. “In September 2012, the EPA issued its final Federal Implementation Plans (FIP) for the Montana regional haze rule. The final FIP indicated that no additional controls were required for Corette or Colstrip Units 3 and 4 but proposed tighter limits for Corette and Colstrip Units 1 and 2. PPL Energy Supply expects to meet these tighter permit limits at Corette without any significant changes to operations, although other requirements have led to the planned suspension of operations at Corette beginning in April 2015. Under the final FIP, Colstrip Units 1 and 2 will require additional controls, including the possible installation of an SNCR and other technology, to meet more stringent nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide limits. The cost of these potential additional controls, if required, could be significant. In November 2012, PPL filed a petition for review of the Montana Regional Haze FIP with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Environmental groups have also filed a petition for review. The two matters have been consolidated, and the parties have agreed to a briefing schedule.”

The PPL Form 10-K report also pointed out that the plant co-owners are in other disputes over Colstrip air emissions, in part related to EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS). “In January 2013, Earthjustice, on behalf of the Sierra Club and the MEIC filed an administrative appeal with the Board of Environmental Review, setting forth challenges to certain components of the Title V permits for Colstrip and Corette,” it said. “These challenges include: 1) the regional haze requirements should have been included in the Title V permits for Corette and Colstrip; 2) the MATS requirements should have been included in the Title V permits for Corette and Colstrip; 3) the particulate monitoring methodology is inadequate at Corette and Colstrip; and 4) sulfur dioxide monitoring is inadequate at Corette. PPL Montana intends to participate in this proceeding and cannot predict its outcome. On January 31, 2013, the Sierra Club and the MEIC alleged identical claims in their joint petition to the EPA, requesting that the EPA object to the [Montana Deparment of Environmental Quality’s] issuance of Colstrip’s and Corette’s Title V permits. PPL Montana cannot predict the outcome of this parallel matter pending before the EPA.”

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.