Montanans hold sacred our right of informed participation in government decisions. This right is now enshrined in our Montana Constitution, one of several provisions intended to help us avoid repeating our history of needless human suffering and environmental degradation that occurred when large out-of-state corporations operated unrestrained by regulatory oversight of government agencies. We learned the hard way that sunlight is the best antiseptic.
At the federal level, there are similar mechanisms in place intended to provide for meaningful citizen participation, aided by the Freedom of Information Act, which is intended to provide citizens with access to critical information that the government is relying on in making regulatory decisions that affect our health and our pocketbooks.
Unfortunately, PPL Montana does not seem to understand this concept and wants to hide critical information behind the veil of corporate secrecy.
Case in point is PPL’s coal-fired power plant at Colstrip. Built in the 1970s, this is one of the dirtiest coal-fired plants in the country. We know the EPA is considering requiring it to upgrade its anti-pollution technology, as required under the Clean Air Act.The plant was grandfathered in under the Clean Air Act and was not required to comply with modern and effective pollution control standards unless the plant’s operator made significant changes or increased its capacity to pollute. Congress bought industry’s arguments that existing plants such as Colstrip should be exempt from the new plant pollution standards, but wisely required compliance if and when these plants expanded.
The Clean Air Act is intended to be a dynamic law that diminishes avoidable pollution and disease by building a level playing field between older plants — like the one at Colstrip — and newer plants. But some basic information is necessary to make sure the playing field stays level. Specifically, conservation groups are asking what PPL has done, and not done, in terms of upgrades at Colstrip and the Corette plant in Billings. PPL wants to keep that critically important information secret from the public.
Meanwhile PPL has made sweeping and vague public statements that it has invested in keeping the plants up to date with modern technology.
Two conservation groups — the Montana Environmental Information Center and Sierra Club — asked the Environmental Protection Agency for the information, based on the Freedom of Information Act. The public interest here seems clear; after all, everyone breathes the air, and we all depend on clean water.
Perhaps PPL is a good corporate neighbor. Perhaps the Colstrip plant — that was first permitted in 1973 — and the 1968 vintage Corette plant, are in compliance with pollution standards. Regardless, it is essential to have access to this basic information so the public can meaningfully comment on the EPA’s consideration of whether to require PPL to upgrade its anti-pollution technology.
This is hardly an effort to dredge up trade secrets — every polluter must comply with the Clean Air Act. These are necessary questions, and the conservation groups are simply asking for historic information about what has occurred at this facility. This has nothing to do with today’s business decisions, and it is hard to fathom how such information could jeopardize PPL’s handsome bottom line.
What’s PPL’s response to these simple questions? “None of your business.”
PPL just sued the EPA to prevent the agency from handing over what the EPA determined is public information. It took two years for EPA to respond to the request for this basic information. No doubt, with $900 million in annual profits in 2010, PPL can afford protracted litigation to prevent or delay EPA’s release of information in government files.
No one is asking PPL to open its books — only to back up company claims of compliance with the Clean Air Act with hard facts. Since they chose suit over simple disclosure, this begs the question: What are they trying to hide?
It’s time to open the windows wide and let the sun shine in.
(Roger Sullivan of Kalispell is board president of the Montana Environmental Information Center.)