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Judge temporarily blocks release of Colstrip data

Associated Press Modified: May 4, 2012 at 3:15 pm •  Published: May 4, 2012

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A federal judge has blocked the Environmental Protection Agency from releasing data about the Colstrip power plant in southeastern Montana to two environmental groups until a challenge by the plant's operator can be heard.

U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull ordered the hold Thursday at the request of operator PPL Montana, which says the data contains trade secrets that are exempt from the federal Freedom of Information Act.

Cebull's order describes the data as a 12-page spreadsheet containing information about every capital project undertaken at the plant between 1980 and 2003 that cost or was budgeted at more than $100,000.

The Montana Environmental Information Center and the Sierra Club requested the information two years ago to learn whether the coal-fired plant, the second-largest west of the Mississippi, is in compliance with environmental laws.

Anne Hedges, the center's program director, said Cebull's order granting the temporary hold was expected but her organization expects to eventually obtain the information.

"We just want the information the company is trying to hide and find out why they're trying to hide it," Hedges said.

PPL Montana spokesman David Hoffman did not return a call for comment.

PPL said in the lawsuit that the EPA should have granted it an exemption to the freedom of information law that deals with trade secrets and confidential commercial or financial information. That exemption says a federal agency can't release the information under FOIA if it causes substantial harm to the competitive position of the person from whom the information was obtained.

The first two units of the 2,000-megawatt power plant began operating in the mid-1970s, and two more units came online in 1984 and 1986.

The plant was grandfathered in under the Clean Air Act and was not required to comply with the tougher pollution control standards unless the plant's operator made upgrades modernizing it. The industry had argued at the time that plants such as Colstrip would eventually be retired, but many have instead been upgraded and expanded without the same pollution controls as newer plants, according to the Sierra Club

Cebull's scheduling order ensures that a decision on the data is not made before Aug. 17. Mike Scott of the Sierra Club said the delay in releasing the data means his organization won't be able to use the information to analyze and comment on the EPA's draft regulations to reduce regional haze in Montana.

The EPA proposal would clear about 15,000 tons sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides each year from the air in Montana. The Colstrip plant would bear the brunt of the cost, more than $80 million for new scrubbers and other upgrades to reduce the emissions from its stacks.

Comments on the EPA's draft rule are due June 19. The EPA has until June 22 to file its answer to PPL Montana's challenge to the data's release.


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