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Federal environmental regulators have proposed denying a coal ash disposal permit for Rainbow Energy Center — which generates almost half of North Dakota’s electricity.

North Dakota’s largest power plant faces the possibility of having to shut down for up to three years if a proposed denial of a federal permit involving the disposal of coal ash is upheld.

The Environmental Protection Agency has given notice that it proposes to deny a permit for a liner for Rainbow Energy Center, an 1,151-megawatt power plant near Underwood.

North Dakota officials have said denial of the permit could mean the plant would have to shut down for three years to allow construction of a new disposal system for coal ash.

If that were to happen, the Midwest power grid would lose the 8 million megawatts of electricity the plant generates each year, according to John Weeda, director of the North Dakota Transmission Authority.

Together with other plants that are slated to go offline, the shutdown of Rainbow Energy Center would mean the Midwest power grid would have to depend on intermittent wind and solar power to meet peak demand by 2026, he told members of the North Dakota Industrial Commission on Tuesday, March 28.

“It’s a very significant part of that power supply,” Weeda told the three commissioners, Gov. Doug Burgum, Attorney General Drew Wrigley and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring.

“Coal Creek Station has been depended on through thick and thin,” and has and provided reliable power even during bad winter storms, when electricity is urgently needed, Weeda said.

Rainbow Energy Center, formerly Coal Creek Station, accounts for almost half of the electricity generated in North Dakota, and generates 40% of the power exported to other states, including Minnesota, Weeda said in an interview on Wednesday, March 29.

The plant, located near New Underwood, burns 7 million to 8 million tons of lignite coal per year and employs 200 workers. The coal comes from nearby Falkirk Mine, which also employs several hundred.

The North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality approved Rainbow Energy’s plan for an alternate disposal liner to store the coal ash. The design is environmentally sound, Weeda said.

The disposal liner plan had been approved earlier, when Great River Energy owned Coal Creek Station, and the EPA is apparently using the change of ownership, which occurred in May 2022, as a reason to reject the plan, Burgum said.

“This is moving the goalposts after the game started,” the governor said, according to a recording of the Industrial Commission meeting.

The Industrial Commission voted unanimously to send a letter to the EPA in support of the Department of Environmental Quality’s proposed liner modifications and to to urge federal officials to accept that plan.

If denied, a new liner would have to be installed, which Weeda said could take three years.

“This seems to be an all-out attack,” and the state must press its case, Goehring said of the EPA notice to deny the state’s proposal.

Jessica Bell, Rainbow Energy’s vice president for governmental and public affairs, said the company is optimistic that the state-approved liner modifications will win federal approval. The disposal plan is one the company has had since acquiring the former Coal Creek Station last year, she said.

“It’s an issue we’re confident we can work through,” Bell said.

The EPA’s preliminary decision seems to ignore the impact a shutdown would have on the community, state and region.

“We’re going to have to dog this one and not let them off the hook,” Goehring said. “This is preposterous.”

The EPA regulates disposal of coal ash, a byproduct of burning the coal that produces contaminants. Without proper management, the contaminants can leach into soils or run off, polluting waterways, ground water or drinking water.

Coal ash contaminants include the toxic metals mercury, cadmium, chromium and arsenic, which the EPS said are associated with cancer and “various other serious health effects.”

North Dakota has a track record of safely disposing of coal ash, with standards that exceed federal requirements. Weeda said. Testing determined the state-approved liner modifications would be safe, he said.

If the liner permit is denied, the forced shut down of the plant could cause other disruptions, Weeda said.

A 400-megawatt wind farm is planned to operate in tandem with Rainbow Energy Center, and plans call for equipping the coal-fired power plant to enable it to capture and store carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas.

“It’s more than just the direct impact at the station itself, Weeda said in an interview. ”Actions like this can have these unintended consequences.”

Burgum, noting the Biden administration’s expressed support of reducing greenhouse gasses, agreed that denying the proposed liner modifications would run counter to the administration’s climate policies.

“Coal Creek could be one of the first plants in the nation where we’re doing on-site carbon capture,” the governor said, noting the state has the regulatory framework and other support to provide low-carbon electricity generated by burning coal.

“This is an all-out attack,” Burgum said, echoing Goerhing’s remark. “It doesn’t really have anything to do with the environment.”

The Rainbow Energy Center’s application for continued use of unlined surface impoundment of the coal ash was one of six around the country that the EPA announced on Jan. 25 that it proposes to deny.

“With today’s proposed denials, EPA is holding facilities accountable and protecting our precious water resources from harmful contamination, all while ensuring a reliable supply of electricity to our communities,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement.

“We remain committed to working with our state partners to protect everyone, especially those in communities overburdened by pollution, from coal ash contamination now and into the future,” he said.

The Industrial Commission’s letter will be sent later this week, ahead of the April 15 public comment deadline for the proposed permit denials.