Three years after the J.E. Corette coal-fired power plant was torn down, Billings leaders still eye the mostly vacant property along the Yellowstone River and hope for renewal.
“We’re interested,” said John Brewer of the Billings Area Chamber of Commerce. “This is an opportunity that won’t come up again for a few generations.”
Talen Energy owns the 75 acres, which are sandwiched between the Yellowstone River and Interstate 90, just east of the North 27th Street exit. Until 2015, there was Wyoming coal piled high on the lot and a wisp of exhaust from Corette’s 80-foot stack. But the 47-year-old plant didn’t meet mercury pollution standards and after owners determined it would cost $38 million to upgrade the facility, the decision was made to shutter it. The power plant was demolished and sold for scrap.
Initially there was talk about the city buying the land, which is bookended by underdeveloped Coulson Park to the north and the Billings water plant to the south. Former city manager Tina Volek had suggested acquiring some of the property as a buffer for the water treatment facility. Those discussions died down eventually, although interest in the Corette land didn’t go away.
“We would love to have that parcel. It’s on the edge of Coulson Park. It could make a real nice area,” said Michael Whitaker, director of the Billings Parks, Recreation and Public Lands Department. There’s a portion of the Corette land that’s in the floodplain, which is probably what the Parks Department would be interested in.
Talen hasn’t forgotten about the lot. There’s a rail spur on the property where cars heaped with coal stretched for a few hundred yards. Today the tracks are a parking spot for petroleum coke from one of the local oil refineries. The power lines that linked Corette to the Colstrip transmission lines linking Montana to the Pacific Northwest are still in place. The site has the ingredients for a second industrial life.
“We continue to actively market the site and look at options for alternative uses in doing so,” said Todd Martin, media contact for Talen, in an email.
Talen is headquartered in Allentown, Pennsylvania. By coincidence, a group of Billings business leaders and planning officials will travel to Allentown this spring to tour an improvement district being developed by a company with similar plans for Billings.
During that Allentown trip, Brewer and others hope to pay Talen a visit and see what can be done with the Corette property. There are discussions underway to develop Coulson Park. The Corette property could follow those developments.
The objective should be finding the best use for the property, said Steve Arveschoug of Big Sky Economic Development. It’s a conversation Arveschoug tried the broach with Talen after the plant closed.
“That’s our goal, and of course you can’t lose sight of the job-creating opportunities that might be there. You would weigh all of that,” Arveschoug said.
Corette was a job creator. It employed 30 people before closing. The 153-megawatt plant produced enough power to electrify 90,000 to 130,000 homes when it operated, though at the end of its life Corette was frequently dialed down.
The power plant was the primary polluter in a poor air-quality corridor identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. EPA lifted the designation about a year after Corette closed.
First owned by the now-defunct Montana Power Co., Corette managed to remain functional without pollution controls for decades. It opted for lower-sulfur coal in 1997 when confronted by clean-air standards. In the 1980s, Montana Power lobbied for exemption from state law when confronted with Montana clean-air standards.
Pennsylvania-based PPL acquired the power plant about 18 years ago and operated it until its closing.