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MontanaPBS Producer Beth Saboe On 'The Future Of Colstrip'

Power plant at Colstrip, MT.
Beth Saboe
The Colstrip Power Plant consists of four separate coal-fired generating units, collectively owned by Puget Sound Energy, Talen Energy, Avista Corporation, PacifiCorp and NorthWestern Energy. The facility employs about 360 people

Tonight on MontanaPBS, producer Beth Saboe takes a look at the uncertain future of the town of Colstrip, as big changes are rocking the coal industry around the world and in Montana. She joins us now to talk about her film, "The Future of Colstrip."

Eric Whitney: Beth Saboe, thanks for joining us at Montana Public Radio.

Beth Saboe: Thank you Eric.

EW: Colstrip is certainly very much in the news lately. What do you hope that your film contributes to this ongoing dialogue about Colstrip?

BS: You know, I hope that after people sit down and watch this they get a better understanding of the reality that the people in Colstrip are facing. One of the things we heard from nearly everyone we talked to was just how frustrated they are that they're not getting a lot of answers. That there are so many questions remaining, and there's so much uncertainty over what's going to happen to the future of the power plants there.

EW: What's it like going into Colstrip with the camera and asking all these questions and talking to people about this very sensitive subject?

BS: We were welcomed with open arms. It was really great, everyone was really happy to talk to us, they were very forthcoming about how worried they are over what's going to happen, about how they're seeing things that they feel are beyond their control. We got great access at the Rosebud Coal Mine, was very appreciative, we got a very long tour of that area.

One thing, the power plants were made completely off limits to us. We got into touch with Talen Energy, who is the operator of the plants, and they said they weren't giving any tours. In fact they didn't really want any media on location. And that's a change in policy, when PP&L operated it, they had a much better open door policy. They've since circled the wagons and aren't being as open with the media. But I would say in general, the people of Colstrip were very kind, very forthcoming, and very candid.

EW: And you talked to a lot of people in Colstrip, everyone from people who work in the coal mines, to state Senator Duane Ankney who's been fighting for Colstrip for years now. What was your takeaway after you finished your interviews there?

BS: I think the biggest takeaway I have is that they're not ready to stop fighting. That they want to do everything they can to maintain a way of life that someone like Senator Ankney has only known, and so many people in that community, that for the last 40 years it's the only way of life they've known.

You hear a lot about outside voices, outside forces sort of saying look, the writing is on the wall, and the coal industry is not going to rebound. But what I felt I got from the people of Colstrip is they're not willing to accept that. They want to find a viable path forward to keep those power plants operating and the coal mine operating at full capacity for as long as possible.

EW: Tell me who you chose to talk to outside of Colstrip. Who did you talk to and why?

BS: So we talked to Dr. Tom Power and we talked to Mark Haggerty who both looked at the economics of the coal industry and sort of the role that Colstrip plays in terms of how vital it is to the entire state.

I also talked to Anne Hedges with the Montana Environmental Information Center. And I think anyone in the pro-coal camp knows that she's a really outspoken critic of fossil fuel energy, and the continued use of coal-fired power.

But I did think that she gave some important insights into starting the conversation about transitioning and moving on to renewables and sort of explaining why there is a push, not just in Montana, but nationwide for greener energy.

EW: What do you think viewers will take away from watching your film that they might not get from reading or watching news coverage of what's happening with Colstrip?

BS: I hope viewers take away the reality that those concerns in this town are real. That these are real people behind the headlines and behind the articles and behind the other stories that you may have seen in the media. They have mortgages, they have families, they have little kids, they have an incredible amount of stress, and there's a lot of weight on their shoulders.

And the thing I think they're most concerned about is that the future of their town, of the community they love, — and it really is a really beautiful little community in southeastern Montana — but that future is being dictated by outside forces. And a lot of them, in a way, they feel helpless and frustrated that there's not a lot they can do, and part of that is why they started the "Colstrip United" effort.

EW: Do you have a favorite quote or scene from the film?

BS: You know I think my favorite quote is the mayor. He was very candid, and he said point blank: "Coal is our only future, we're a one horse town, and that horse is coal." Basically he made no bones about the fact that they don't want to transition away from coal, and that's not a conversation they're really looking forward to.

Beth Saboe produces "The Rundown" on MontanaPBS. Her film, "The Future of Colstrip" premieres Monday, May 23 at 8:30 p.m. on MontanaPBS.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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