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Coal plant closures help reduce pollutants that cause haze

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Several recent coal plant closures in Montana play a major role in efforts to reduce air pollution. PHOTO BY JZEHNDER/ADOBE STOCK

By John McLaughlin Daily Inter Lake

KALISPELL, Mont. – Due in part to newly shuttered coal plants and modern industrial controls, state environmental officials expect significant reductions through 2028 in at least two major pollutants that haze up an otherwise clear Big Sky.

Myriad regulations and benefits exist for quality air, generally. But the state Department of Environmental Quality is required by a federal rule specifically to reduce the state’s haziest conditions and protect still-clear skies for certain mandated federal lands through 2064.

The ultimate national goal—to achieve natural visibility conditions in these areas—is set by the federal Regional Haze Rule. The stated task since the early 2000s is to address hazy vistas across the country and now at 156 national parks, wilderness areas and national monuments. Northwest Montana contains five: Glacier National Park, Bob Marshall Wilderness, Scapegoat Wilderness, Mission Mountains Wilderness and Cabinet Mountains Wilderness.

Formal efforts to reduce haze in the areas come via 10-year plans. The DEQ has rolled out its public comment period for Montana’s newest Regional Haze Implementation Plan, which will be submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency for later comment and approval, the Daily Inter Lake reports.

The DEQ is now accepting public comment on the new plan through March 21, with a public hearing set for March 18 in Helena and online. Recent rule revisions allowed the state to postpone its second implementation plan, which was originally set to start in 2018. The new 323-page plan outlines how Montana aims to achieve clear skies diminished by emissions sources like industry, oil and gas works, wildfires, on- and off-road vehicles and other out-of-state and foreign sources.

Rhonda Payne, an air quality planner for the DEQ, said the state overall is projecting reductions through 2028 in nitrogen-oxide emissions by 40 percent and sulfur-dioxide emissions by 21 percent. Both are precursors to visibility-impairing particulates, and other air quality issues.

“We are on track to meet these goals in 2028,” Payne said generally of the state’s efforts. “These goals are established every planning period, so it’s an incremental, sort of stepwise reduction that you would be trying to make to meet the ultimate goal in 2064.”

Overall, the state’s haze reduction plans through 2028 remain relatively simple and largely coincide with general state and federal efforts to reduce air pollution. Statewide, now-retired coal-fired electrical power plants play a major role in the planned reductions. Several have closed, all in eastern Montana.

According to the DEQ plan, the closures include the 153-megawatt J.E. Corette steam-electric station in 2015 near Billings; Units 1 and 2 at the Colstrip steam-electric station, each producing 307 megawatts of electricity, that shut down in 2020, also near Billings; and the 50 megawatt Montana-Dakota Utilities Lewis & Clark station, which shut down last year near Sidney.

Otherwise, Payne said Montana’s new plan largely relies on enforcing existing federal and state air quality controls and programs. She said there are no new major state initiatives.

“It sounds as though we might not be doing anything for regional haze purposes, but there are so many other air pollution control programs that benefit regional haze,” she said.

Another avenue of reducing emissions statewide exists in a general updating of industrial facilities that are thereby held to stricter, more modern emissions standards than, for example, a quarter-century ago.

“So we know that as new equipment comes on, there’s already going to be operational standards for emissions reductions,” Payne said.

As required by the federal haze rule, the plan also identifies past progress in reducing emissions tracked by the state. Statewide from 2002 to 2017, nitrogen-oxide emissions decreased by 47 percent; sulfur-dioxide emissions declined by 62 percent; volatile organic compounds declined by 28 percent; and levels of particulate matter declined by 12 percent, according to the plan.

It overall addresses four main regulatory steps under the haze rule. The steps include determining current visibility conditions as compared to natural conditions; developing the state’s long-term plans for emissions that cause visibility impairments; establishing reasonable progress goals through 2028; and submitting a monitoring strategy.

The state’s full implementation plan is available on the Montana DEQ Air Quality Bureau’s website.

Public comment can be mailed to Rhonda Payne, Montana DEQ Air Quality Bureau, 1520 E. 6th Ave., Helena, MT 59620; or emailed to

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