Colstrip residents are at a crossroads between past and future - KXLH.com | Helena, Montana

Colstrip residents are at a crossroads between past and future

Posted: Feb 04, 2018 4:00 PM Updated:

COLSTRIP - The future of the nation's coal industry was in the spotlight during the State of the Union speech but in Montana, things seemed much more dim.

President Trump declared the war on energy and the war on clean coal over in his speech, but a new report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Analysis showed that the U.S. coal industry continued to shrink last year trending toward a long-term decline.

In Colstrip, home of the second-largest coal-fired plant in the West, residents find themselves at a crossroads between the town's past and its future.

Two years ago, Lori Shaw and her close friend Ashley Dennehy founded Colstrip United, a grassroots group aimed at supporting the town and the plant.

The two Colstrip natives felt the need to give their community a voice, a forum, to help educate people about the importance of coal and coal energy.

Little did they know, their new endeavor would inspire an entire community.

"We've garnered 17,000 followers on Facebook and we also now have a presence on Twitter and Instagram," Shaw said.

According to Shaw, the group focuses on public education about coal and coal energy and the impacts of coal on the community and state.

Shaw has taken her activism a step further and was just elected to the Colstrip City Council, a new role that gives her added perspective.

"I sit on the advisory board of the Colstrip library," she said. "Our small library just lost its state aid. The primary source of state aid for libraries is the coal severance tax."

That tax is levied on the coal industry in Montana and pays for public projects in coal towns.

Jim Atchison is the executive director of the SouthEastern Montana Development Corporation and he said Colstrip is not the first community in the United States to go through this process.

"We're looking at other communities around the country," Atchison said. "Things that they have done positively and what impacts they've had and how they've addressed those with government and the private sector and how it's worked out, pro or con."

He added that the quality of life in Colstrip is quite unbelievable. 

"Whether it's the schools, the clinic, park and rec district, or city and county taxes, which are very low compared to other communities," Atchison said. "That's some of the benefits of the coal industry or the coal economy for this part of the state."

Pat Campbell, labor relations specialist at Western Energy's Rosebud Mine, has lived and worked in Colstrip for nearly 30 years. He's worried about property values and jobs.

"My personal opinion is we're going to see some layoffs in the community," Campbell said. "We have hundreds of vendors that come here from Billings, Miles City. It's going to affect those people too. I think we're going to feel a pretty good pinch."

So when will Colstrip Units 1 and 2 actually close?

Co-owners Talen Energy and Puget Sound Energy have agreed to a shutdown date of June 2022, but the word on the street in Colstrip is the shutdown could occur a year earlier - in June of 2021.

As for Units 3 and 4, their future is not as clear as six companies share ownership in the plants.

Any decision to shut down requires unanimous consent from all six.

In its latest rate case in Washington state, Puget Sound identified 2027 as its exit date from Colstrip.

Talen Energy foresees Units 3 and 4 operating well beyond that as long as they remain economically viable. That will be the deciding factor.

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