President Trump has promised to revive coal. But the fate of Colstrip, Montana, is tied to Western Washington and Oregon, where utilities — under pressure from customers who want clean energy — are turning their backs on coal.

Share story

COLSTRIP, Montana — In a small town sustained by coal, Rex Rogers has been an unusual union leader.

He believes in the science that links fossil-fuel combustion to climate change, and dared to talk about that during monthly meetings with plant workers whose paychecks depend on turning strip-mined coal into electricity.

Change was on the way, Rogers said, and the community needed to prepare: Puget Sound Energy (PSE) — the plant’s largest owner — was planning a phased shutdown amid a shift toward cheaper, cleaner sources of power.

Then last year, President Donald Trump took office with a pledge to revive the coal industry, stirring fresh hopes in Colstrip. Rogers fell out of favor with plant workers, losing — in a close summer vote — his job as business manager for Local 1638 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW).

“A lot of people in Colstrip are not willing to admit that the shutdowns are going to happen. They think the Trump administration is going to save them,” Rogers said.

In Colstrip, it is indeed hard to imagine life after the coal plant that dominates the skyline and sends giant plumes of steam into the crisp winter air. Coal has made this southeastern Montana town of some 2,200 people a showcase of rural prosperity.

Here, the median household income exceeds $84,000 a year, nearly twice the state average. The free-admission rec center includes a gymnasium, swimming pool and nine-hole golf course. Thirty-two parks dot neighborhood cul-de-sacs.

The wealth depends on the day-and-night flow of black carbon fuel dug out of the earth just outside of town and fed by conveyors and trucks to boilers at the plant — second-biggest west of the Mississippi and able to provide power for some 1.5 million households.

This plant has been a significant supplement to our region’s hydropower.

For Bellevue-based PSE, Washington’s largest energy utility, coal-fired power — mostly from Colstrip — provides 37 percent of the electricity flowing to Microsoft, Boeing and other cornerstone companies of the regional economy.

Two of the plant’s four units will close by July 2022. PSE has forecast that it will stop drawing power from the other two units by the early 2030s, and hinted in planning documents that it could happen sooner.

In a settlement approved by the Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission, PSE has allocated $380 million toward closure costs that include cleaning up the groundwater pollution that is an ugly legacy of the plant’s operations.

PSE also has pledged $10 million to aid Colstrip with the changes ahead. Some Montana politicians say it’s not enough.

During last year’s legislative session in Helena, state Sen. Duane Ankney threw down the gauntlet with a bill to require PSE to help compensate homeowners for lost property values caused by the shutdown of the first two power-plant units. The measure nearly passed, and could someday resurface.

Ankney is a Colstrip Republican whose political career was preceded by years processing the coal mined just outside of town. He is known for his ever-present cowboy hat, which he briefly doffed last September when Kimberly Harris, PSE’s chief executive, flew to Billings to meet with him in a hotel conference room.

He was grateful for the PSE money. But Colstrip, with more than 700 jobs tied to the plant and mine, would need a lot more help.

“I was very honest with her. I thought it was a bad deal,” Ankney recalled. “You ain’t going to morph Colstrip into something else.”

Grant Ringel, a PSE spokesman, said Harris “was very appreciative of the senator’s passion for his community, and that he took the time to speak with her.”

Ankney is now looking elsewhere for money. He hopes the Trump administration will consider a big federal grant to develop new technology to reduce the plant’s carbon footprint.

War on coal

During his State of the Union address in January, Trump declared an end to “the war on beautiful clean coal.”

But coal has struggled to compete with other sources of power, most notably natural gas, which plummeted in price as fracking technology opened up vast new supplies trapped in shale formations.

Just this year, a dozen U.S. coal-fired plants — able to generate power for more than 8 million homes — are scheduled to shut down.

In Colstrip, the economics of the two older generating units are so tenuous that PSE wants them idled for three months so utilities can take advantage of low-cost hydroelectricity as rivers swell from snowmelt, according to a PSE official.

The politics of climate change also are driving utilities away from Colstrip.

While Trump has rejected the 2015 Paris Agreement that calls for major reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee embraces the agreement and has repeatedly, but so far unsuccessfully, pushed for a price on carbon emissions. Such a tax would further add to the costs of operating Colstrip, which in 2016 released nearly 14.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, a colorless greenhouse gas.

That’s equivalent to the carbon emissions spewed by more than 3 million cars, and has made Colstrip a major target of the Sierra Club, which is waging a “Beyond Coal” campaign bankrolled — in part — by a $64 million contribution from climate activist and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Western Washington campaign organizers are rallying support for Colstrip to be shut down by 2025.

“Western Washington residents shouldn’t have to spend the next decade with the knowledge that they’re paying for a dirty coal plant every time they flip on a light switch,’’ said Doug Howell, a Seattle-based Sierra Club senior campaign representative.

Big users are applying pressure, too.

Last April, Microsoft served notice that it wanted to bypass PSE to get carbon-free electricity from other sources.

“The reality … is that our customers are demanding a different (energy) mix, and we need to respond that,” said Ron Roberts, the utility’s director of thermal resources.

Town’s booms and busts

Plenty of people have come and gone from Colstrip, while others have set down roots.

Stacey Yates, who defeated Rogers to take over as the union’s business manager, followed his father into work at the plant. Now, his son has a job there, too.

“I love Colstrip, it’s home,” Yates said. “Quite honestly, I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”

The history of his hometown traces the boom-and-bust cycles of Western mining.

In 1923, coal drew the Northern Pacific Railway to this remote swath of Montana, where Colstrip nestles between pine-dotted hills with red-rock outcroppings baked by ancient fires that burned through the vast coal seams underground.

The railroad founded the town and opened a strip mine that provided the fuel for the steam-powered locomotives.

By the early 1960s, the town faded as the railroad switched to diesel and no longer needed coal.

Colstrip’s rebirth came in the early 1970s, when it appeared the abundant sources of Pacific Northwest hydroelectricity would soon be tapped out. Puget Sound Energy needed new sources of energy, and company officials teamed with a Montana-based utility to build Colstrip 1 & 2.

Ranchers protested. They feared the new and much larger wave of coal development would tear up the land, foul the aquifers and put their way of life at risk.

“Water was always the primary environmental concern,” said Wally McRae, a rancher and cowboy poet who helped lead that fight. “They were creating a problem and we would bear the brunt of it.”

McRae and other ranchers formed the Northern Plains Resource Council, a conservation group that launched a legal challenge to the much larger Colstrip units 3 & 4.

By the early 1980s, the big plant expansion got underway in a complicated ownership structure split among PSE and five other utilities. One of the owners — then known as Montana Power — was responsible for operating the plant and the town.

Buoyed by the stimulus of a huge construction project, the population swelled to nearly 8,000 as the owner companies invested in new houses, parks and classrooms. The town also got a dash of culture with a theater group that managed to bridge a sharp cultural divide by drawing in ranchers as well as miners and plant workers.

“It figures. I was asked to play the villain. I wore a red cape and top hat, and twirled a cane,” recalled McRae, who by then had gained plenty of notoriety as he spoke out — at public meeting after public meeting — against the plant expansion.

Once the plant building boom ended, there was another contraction as construction workers left. By 1998, as Colstrip changed from a company town to an incorporated city, the population had plummeted to less than 3,000 people.

But Colstrip’s motto — on a plaque outside City Hall — is defiantly optimistic: “Tomorrow’s town today.”

Profits get tougher

Since 1975, more than 460 million tons of coal have been mined from the earth around Colstrip, most of it to produce power for Northwest utilities.

With the aid of explosives and drag lines, layers of earth and rock — typically 100 feet thick or more — are removed to reach the coal. Then, there is more blasting to bust up the coal, which must be crushed and — once at the plant — ground to the consistency of talcum powder before being mixed with air and blown into the four boilers.

The heat from the burning coal generates the steam that drives the turbines. This is a highly mechanized operation — plant workers may spend much of their shift monitoring gauges and computer screens.

But during 12-hour shifts, some workers periodically open a small porthole, don protective eyewear and peer into the fiery heart of the boilers. If chunks of ash — known as clinkers — stick on the bottom, they may need some muscle.

“You have to physically get in there with a lance — a 20-foot long pipe with a point on the end — and poke at them and break them loose,” said Rogers, the former union business manager.

As coal’s fortunes have declined, it has become harder to wrest profits from the Colstrip plant in a region flush with other sources of power.

Talen Montana, the owner charged with operating the plant, has lost millions trying to sell Colstrip power, according to Dale Lebsack, a Talen senior vice president.

In a move that rankled plant workers, Talen announced this year it would no longer match employee contributions to the local United Way.

It will be difficult for the owners to reach agreement on a date to end all Colstrip power production.

NorthWestern Energy, which services much of Montana, still views the Colstrip power as a “crucial part of our energy portfolio,” according to utility spokesman Butch Larcombe.

Meanwhile, PSE officials are under pressure in Washington to leave coal behind as soon as possible, and they support Inslee’s efforts to put a carbon tax on fossil fuels.

But Roberts, PSE’s thermal manager, says all six owners will need to concur on an end date for the plant’s last two units, and that will be a difficult task.

Environmentalists contend Puget Sound Energy officials can go it alone, and exit Colstrip.

“If it’s no longer prudent practice to continue operating, they can say they want out,” said Ann Hedges, deputy director of the Montana Environmental Information Center, which had attorneys review the operator’s agreement.

Legacy of pollution

When PSE stops drawing power from Colstrip, the work here won’t end.

Outside of town, state law requires that land be reclaimed. So far, less than a third of the strip-mined acres have completed the second of a four-phase restoration process, according to state records.

At the plant site, many years of cleanup will follow to deal with a legacy of pollution that fouled some drinking-water wells and has threatened groundwater used by area ranchers.

The source of this is ash held in some 800 acres of ponds spread around the plant property.

Some ponds hold the coarse bottom-of-the-boiler ash. Others are filled with lighter fly ash that is scrubbed — with the aid of water — from gases flowing out of the stacks.

Back in the 1970s, a Montana state board required all the ponds to be “properly sealed” to protect aquifers from chemicals such as boron, selenium and sulfates that leach out of the ash.

But a January 1986 engineering report acknowledged that the ponds had leaked from early on.

Recent estimates indicate 154 million gallons of this tainted water reach aquifers annually, according to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

The pollution’s spread is tracked by more than 2,000 monitoring wells, some of which also pump polluted water back into the ponds.

Colstrip’s municipal water system does not rely on the aquifers. But through the years, this pollution still emerged as a big source of litigation.

In 2008, plant owners paid $25 million to settle a lawsuit from 57 Colstrip plaintiffs who alleged contamination of aquifers then used for drinking water by some homes and businesses. One plaintiff was state Sen. Ankney, who although a staunch supporter of the Colstrip plant, was dismayed to find his well tainted.

“They had a leak in a pond that caused real issues,” Ankney said. “Nobody wanted to admit it … They knew — they knew there had been a problem.”

There also were problems outside of town.

In 2010, two ranch families reached a settlement for an undisclosed amount to resolve claims that the plant has polluted and reduced the aquifer water underneath their properties that provided water for cattle.

The Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation and the Montana Environmental Information Center also went to court over the water pollution. In July 2016 the groups reached a settlement requiring the owners to switch to a system that dries out the ash.

Montana state officials estimate it will take hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up the pollution. While serving as IBEW business manager, Rogers viewed this work as job opportunities for the more than 230 members of Local 1638 who will lose work as the power units shut down.

Rogers joined with the Northern Plains Resource Council, McRae and other local ranchers to press the owners for a fully funded cleanup that would hire union labor.

“There was a lot of talk about a ‘just transition,’ and whenever that came up we always segued into jobs for our members,” Rogers said.

Rogers also served on a state advisory council to advise Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock on how to comply with an Obama-era rule — now withdrawn by the Trump administration — to cut power-plant greenhouse-gas emissions. And he appeared in a campaign advertisement supporting Bullock as the governor successfully fended off a strong 2016 challenge from Republican Greg Gianforte, who repeatedly came to Colstrip to attack Democrats for undermining the coal economy.

All of this gave political fodder to Rogers’ union critics who mustered enough votes to turn him out of office. Last fall, after losing the Local 1638 election, he sold his home in Colstrip, where he had lived for more than three decades, and moved to an off-the-grid house powered by solar energy near Helena.

Rogers now works at the plant two weeks each month. It’s a long-distance, cross-state commute, with evenings in Colstrip spent housesitting a friend’s property.

Rogers still likes his work, firing up the boilers that send power surging west to Puget Sound.

But the plant is aging. Some veteran union members have left for jobs elsewhere.

Others are staying put and have joined Colstrip United. This group was formed during the 2016 election as “a grassroots movement dedicated to educating the public about the importance of coal and coal energy.”

The group’s signs are planted in front yards all over town.

“We are stronger together,” they proclaim.