COLSTRIP — Forty years later, what do you expect of Colstrip? A town awash in coal money? Yes, though not so much as in the flush days.
The median household income here pushes $75,000. Western Energy Co. alone paid the state $28 million in taxes in 2012 on its Rosebud Mine, where they dig the coal that powers four side-by-side generating plants – Colstrip Units 1, 2, 3 and 4 – across State Highway 39.
A roaring industrial hub, bursting Bakken-like at its infrastructural seams?
Colstrip’s boom came in the construction days of the 1970s and ’80s. It was a true company town until Montana Power Co. sold out in the late 1990s. By the time it incorporated in 1998, its water system and basic infrastructure were firmly in place and remain so.
Despite its sprawling footprint, few towns in Montana have expanded and contracted in such orderly fashion. Colstrip, with its tree-lined streets and a vigorous parks and recreation department, was hailed by Sports Illustrated as Montana’s “Sportstown” on the occasion of the magazine’s 50th anniversary in 2004.
If you’re looking for man camps, drugs and violence, get back on Interstate 94 and head east.
“We probably have an average of maybe three or four arrests a month,” assistant police chief Kris Egan reported recently.
True, the arrests tend to increase during “turnaround” at the generating plants. That’s a two-month period in late spring when some 700 skilled workers, most of them men, come to town to perform upgrade and maintenance work.
“One of our guys actually stopped somebody last week and caught them with possession of meth,” said Egan.
Otherwise, what drug issues there are generally involve marijuana, she said.
“There was one in Forsyth about 15 years ago, in a house,” Egan recalled. “I don’t think we’ve ever found one here.”
An early June stopover in Colstrip to research the third installment of the Missoulian’s Montana A to Z series found a “C” town that puffs with justifiable pride – for its safe streets, schools and sports teams; for its parks and trails; for its family-friendly lifestyle and for Castle Rock Lake, a boating and fishing magnet on the west side of town.
We also discovered a community chewing its collective fingernails. Two days before our arrival, the Obama administration proposed stringent new carbon-emission standards for coal-fired generating plants.
“For the sake of our families’ health and our kids’ future, we have a moral obligation to act on climate,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said. “When we do, we’ll turn risks on climate into business opportunity.”
It didn’t play well in Colstrip.
“I know how much they spend on taking care of Mother Earth over there, and it’s tremendous,” Rick Harbin said with a wave of a hand toward the Colstrip power plants.
“People can say anything they want, but I’m no dummy and the people that are working out there are no dummies. If what was happening was going to kill them, we wouldn’t be living right next door.”
Harbin not only lives “next door” to Units 1, 2, 3 and 4, he runs the town’s parks department and has for more than 30 years. His office is inside the Colstrip Parks and Recreation Department’s 32,000-square-foot art community center in Obert Rye Park, where trees frame the busy power plants at the edge of town.
Three days after our visit came word that Pennsylvania-based PPL Corp., the company that bought the plants in 2001, plans to transfer ownership of all its power plants nationwide to a new subsidiary, Talen Energy Corp., within the next year.
Most of those plants are in the eastern United States. PPL said jobs will be lost, but it’s not determined where.
An anti-coal energy consultant from Boston said given the uncertainty, Montana should plan for life without Colstrip, or at least Units 1 and 2.
PPL Montana had already announced plans to mothball its Corette plant in Billings by next April.
Last month, the Montana Environmental Information Center and the Sierra Club launched a campaign urging Montana to make PPL clean up what they call one of the most dangerous coal ash sites in the country.
The war on coal is heating up again, Harbin said.
“How do you predict the future?”
Meanwhile, Harbin has a parks department to run.
He and Bill Neumiller, president of the parks and rec board, were the main pushes behind the Sports Illustrated “Sportstown” award in 2004.
Towns across the nation were invited to apply for “Sportstown” status through the National Recreation and Park Association. Colstrip’s selection for Montana raised eyebrows across the state, but Harbin and Neumiller made a strong case. Signs around town sum it up: “It Starts in Parks.”
Harbin’s office oversees the parks, playgrounds and ball fields of Colstrip. It also maintains a downtown plaza, the nine-hole Ponderosa Butte Public Golf Course and the extremely active community center and pool – more than 30 parks and park-like facilities in a town of 2,300. To match that ratio, Missoula would need 1,000 parks and Billings some 1,500.
Then there’s the paved city trail that runs 3.3 miles through town to the high school that overlooks the golf course. A 1.4-mile side loop runs through Colstrip and past the power plant to the east before hooking up with the other trail at Pine Butte Drive.
It’s not his department’s purview, Harbin said, but another 2.5-mile trail of crushed concrete and red scoria encircles Castle Rock Lake, which draws fishermen, boaters, picnickers and partiers from around the region.
“We had this stuff long before Billings and all those other guys decided they were going to have bike lanes and things,” Harbin said.
He was parks director in Sheridan, Wyo., when the Colstrip job came open in 1980. Back then, it was the power company-created Colstrip Area Recreation and Parks Association. Rye Park, the outdoor pool, and the community center were already in place.
“They built the park system and all this stuff before there was anybody here,” Harbin said.
Once Colstrip incorporated, city voters approved a mill levy that provided free access for residents to the nine-hole golf course, the community pool and water slide and to most of the dozens of programs CPRD provides.
“There’s another thing,” said Lu Shomate at the Schoolhouse History and Arts Center. “CPRD employs a majority of our high school kids throughout the summer. They have a huge staff, from lifeguards to program leaders. They help with the young kids, they mow the lawns.”
“The parks and recreation department is phenomenal,” said Egan, the cop. “I’ve not been anywhere or seen anything that has the programs they do – and for free.”
Egan moved to Colstrip in 1972, during construction of the first two power plants. Law enforcement was all but nonexistent back then. It was up to Montana Power Co. to keep its workers and their families in line, and it did so with the hammer of a paycheck.
“The only thing we worried about was rattlesnakes,” Egan said.
She and her friends flaunted the lawlessness by buzzing around what town there was on mini-bikes. Egan was 10 years old.
These days she’s second in command of a police department that itself turns 10 in August. Egan’s daughter moved back to Colstrip from Billings three years ago with her own three daughters, all of whom keep “crazy busy,” she said. This in a town with no mall or movie theater, no box stores, and one fast-food restaurant, a Subway.
“They play on traveling volleyball teams and traveling basketball teams and all three of them are playing softball,” Egan said. “Their AAU volleyball team is going to go to Orlando, Florida, in a couple of weeks.”
Indeed, two Colstrip teams qualified for the Junior Nationals, a 14-and-under and a 12-and-under squad. Raffles and fundraisers amassed the funding required to fly to Florida.
“One night three weeks ago at the Moose (Lodge), they had a barbecue burger thing,” Egan said. “All the moms brought salads and they made baked goods to auction off. They made $6,000 that night.”
Here’s something to chew on: PPL Montana, the successor to the now-defunct Montana Power Co. in Colstrip, employs some 370 people here. But PPL is not the controlling owner of the four power plants.
That distinction belongs to Puget Sound Energy of Washington, which splits ownership of Units 1 and 2 with PPL and controls 25 percent of both 3 and 4. PPL owns 30 percent of Unit 3 but none of the electricity generated in Unit 4. Four other companies – NorthWestern Energy of Montana, Avista Corp., Pacific Power of Washington and Oregon, and Portland General Electric – have lesser shares in 3 and 4.
Units 1 and 2, the smaller, older turquoise-and-red trimmed plants, each has a generating capacity of 307 megawatts and can burn 192.5 tons of coal an hour. The other two plants, painted a blander beige, crank out 740 megawatts apiece. The total generating capacity of all four – 2,094 megawatts – makes Colstrip the second largest coal-fired project in the West. It provides enough power to electrify 1.6 million households, most of them in more populated areas of the Pacific Northwest.
“PPL’s the operator and they get all the bad press,” Harbin said. “When you operate the plant and all the trucks have your name on it, it looks like you own the whole kit and kaboodle.”
But when it comes time to, say, vote on settling a lawsuit, Puget Sound Energy’s voice rings loudest. It makes for animated discussions when representatives of the six companies gather every other month, said Harbin.
It’s clear to him, he said, that “those Washington owners don’t want anybody to even know that this exists because it’s a hot potato out there.”
Democrat Jay Inslee, Washington’s governor, has made clear he wants to wean the state off coal-generated power. To do that, he must convince Puget Sound Energy, Pacific Power and Avista, the state’s three private electric utilities, to cut back or eliminate the electricity they receive from Colstrip and Wyoming plants.
The utilities say coal is a dependable source and must remain part of their long-term energy plans. It’s just part of a diverse portfolio of electricity sources that includes natural gas, wind and hydropower, they say.
The weight room at Colstrip Parks and Rec’s community center comes alive at 6 p.m.
“It’s where a huge hub of our community goes,” Kaitlyn Kolka said.
Kolka will be a sophomore at Montana State University in the fall. She’s been working summers at CPRD since high school and fully embraces the active lifestyles in these parts.
“Athletics are very big in Colstrip,” Kolka said as she led visitors through the center. “I would say they’re our pride and joy. Athletic events definitely get the whole town out, and fitness is very important to our town.”
Action at the lighted basketball court outside will pick up later in the evening, when the sun’s going down and a text summons goes out.
Inside, there’s another basketball court, scene of nightly 3-on-3 league games throughout the year, a nursery, racquetball court, heart room and fitness gym (“where all our yoga and that kind of stuff take place,” said Kolka).
The center opens at 6 a.m. but the janitor gets there a couple of hours earlier and unlocks the door.
“We’ll have more people in here at 4 o’clock in the morning than at 6,” Harbin said.
As president and general manager of Western Electric Company’s Rosebud Mine, Kent Salitros has an enormous stake in the proposed emission control standards for the power plants across the highway. In his mind, they are an exercise in futility.
“The things that people are doing are miniscule compared to the size of the issue,” Salitros said. “Even if you say, OK, I believe there is global warming caused by man, nothing we’re talking about doing, which is basically destroying entire industries and dramatically raising the cost of energy, is making an impact.”
WECO was founded in 1966 and began providing coal to the Corette plant in Billings in 1968. The mine’s peak production year was 1988, when all four units were up and running. It sold 16 million tons of coal that year.
Today, the Rosebud Mine operation employs 360 people, roughly the same number as the power plants across the highway. WECO’s top workers make $32.05 an hour and another $10.60 in pension and medical benefits.
“This is the type of job middle-class people are supposed to be able to work and make good wages and have a good lifestyle,” Salitros said.
The Rosebud will produce 10 million tons of coal this year to feed the Colstrip power plants. (Railroad shipping from Colstrip ceased four years ago.)
According to Salitros, 35 cents of every dollar the mine makes goes toward royalties and taxes.
Coal seams here run 23 feet deep. That’s standard and predictable.
“Consistency is a good thing,” said Salitros, a genial Indiana native and a mining engineer most of his life.
What varies significantly is the layer of overburden above the coal. The deeper the blasters have to blast and the shovels have to plunge, the more expensive the process, Salitros said. As he spoke, he was in a pit 160 feet deep.
It’s an old mining adage – “Tomorrow whatever I mine is worse than what I mined yesterday, or what they mined here in 1924,” Salitros said.
Western Energy’s available coal deposits here are in an area 16 miles long and five miles deep. Salitros said at the current rate that should be enough to supply the plants through 2040 at least.
“Whether the economics are there or the environmental regulations are there no one knows. But as far as the resource, it’s still here,” he said.
Harbin sits in at meetings of the energy company reps. He asks questions, he said, and is willing to listen to the answers. He’s convinced there’ll always be a need for dependable fossil fuel and says he knows how much PPL and the others are spending and have spent to clean up their acts.
“It’s tremendous,” Harbin said. “If you leave it up to the hydro and all those other things … maybe there’ll be a day when we just turn off all the fossil fuels and see what happens.”
Colstrip has long fought to protect its image as a clean, active place to live.
“I would say the biggest thing right now for us is you’ve got these young folks and they’re listening to what you hear on TV, and you’ve got the president of the United States condemning what’s going on here,” Harbin said. “You’re not going to take your family and go some place that might be closed.”
“You read things (that say) we all have asthma or our air quality’s really bad,” remarked Debby Haas, who like Harbin has lived in Colstrip for more than 30 years. “They talk like they’ve never been here. They never see how pretty it is, how clean it is, how really nicely done the town is.”
Harbin wonders if the rest of the state is ready to do without Colstrip and its contributions to the power grid, the tax base and the coal severance tax fund.
“It’s raised a lot of families, put a lot of kids through school, and quite frankly it’s a hell of a large percentage of the taxes that pay for schools in this state,” he said. “Montana might be sorry that they put too much on us here, because that’ll all shift to somebody else, which is you, I and everybody else.
“If those plants were to go bye-bye, there wouldn’t be anything left here. It would be a ghost town, and it doesn’t have to happen. It really doesn’t have to happen.”