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Members of the Colstrip advisory group listen to public comment on March 2. They are, from left: state Labor Commissioner Galen Hollenbaugh, General Jon Bennion, chief of staff for Attorney General Tim Fox; Adam Schafer, senior adviser to Gov. Steve Bullock; and Colstrip Mayor John Williams.

Nearly a dozen Montana state officials traveled from Helena to Colstrip last week for the second meeting of the community impact advisory group tasked with creating a plan for using $10 million from Puget Sound Energy to help transition the city to a future with reduced coal-fired power production.

There was no shortage of ideas for new jobs and new industry in the three-hour Friday afternoon meeting. Despite stiff competition from the state basketball tournament, about 50 people stopped in to listen or speak on their community’s future. Some public comments reflected community members’ struggle to accept that some of the plant and mine jobs they’ve depended on for a generation will disappear within four years.

Yet this Rosebud County town of 2,300 has assets that no other small Montana city can claim: A highly skilled workforce and a $2 million federal retraining grant, for starters. The high-voltage transmission lines that have carried coal-generated power since the 1970s could transmit wind energy in the future. A wind farm has been proposed near Colstrip.

The town gets its water from the Yellowstone River 30 miles away. Although the town only uses about 2 cubic feet of water per second, the Colstrip power plant owners and the city collectively have a right to 69.27 cubic feet per second, according to the Montana Department of Natural Resource Conservation. As the oldest Units 1 and 2 close down by July 2022, the power plant will need less water. The plant owners are open to the possibility of transferring their water right to the city, said Gordon Criswell, spokesman for the operator, Talen Energy.

Colstrip Mayor John Williams also asked about the city acquiring land in town now owned by the power plant.

Colstrip has an economic diversification strategy prepared last year with public input. The city of Colstrip and the Southeastern Montana Economic Development Corporation recognized the need for a strategic plan, obtained state and federal grants and produced goals based on “the outstanding infrastructure that will remain even after the closure of Units 1 and 2.”

“Colstrip is filled with unique elements positioned to drive economic diversification beyond the traditional coal-driven energy generation market,” the plan prepared by KLJ Engineering noted. “Colstrip also has an extremely high quality of life with miles of trails, outstanding schools, a well-developed park system, medical clinic, recreational lake adjacent to town and much more.”

As the strategy document said, “there’s no silver bullet” solution for Colstrip and the surrounding region, but multiple ideas can be used to build a more diverse economy that preserves Colstrip as a thriving community. For example, as an estimated 100 plant jobs disappear with the shutdown of Units 1 and 2, hundreds of jobs will be created in cleaning up those two plants for years to come.

Meanwhile, the environmental cleanup of ash pond leakage is expected to require work at least until 2049 — 30 years into the future, according to the latest DEQ projection. The task is huge; It’s been estimated that 200 million gallons of polluted water per year leak from the ponds that hold ash from all four Colstrip plants.

Colstrip residents have reason to be concerned. They also are empowered. There’s no denying their community has the attention of state government. The advisory group includes representatives of Gov. Steve Bullock, Attorney General Tim Fox, the directors of the Montana departments of Labor, Environmental Quality and Commerce as well as state Sens. Duane Ankney and Jason Small, state Rep. Geraldine Custer, Rosebud County Commissioner Doug Martens, Mayor Williams, the local IBEW business manager, rancher Wally McRae and Puget Sound Energy. The group plans to meet monthly to draw up an agreement by November. It would then have to be approved by Colstrip, Rosebud County and the Washington Transportation and Utilities Commission, which approved the $10 million PSE payment in a major rate case decided in December.

The town that coal built can transition to different types of energy and industry. The change won’t be easy or pain-free, but residents and local government leaders should take advantage of the help that’s offered. Now is the time to press their case for access to the assets that can be re-purposed to generate jobs in new energy and industry.

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