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Colstrip: "A Little Scared, A Little Concerned, A Little Bit Hopeful"

 Kayla Campbell, a waitress at Rizo's.
Kayla Desroches
Yellowstone Public Radio
Kayla Campbell, a waitress at Rizo's.

Amid constantly changing closure dates for a power plant majority owned by out-of-state companies, a town that found success through coal is coming to terms with the plant’s partial retirement. Kayla Desroches spent a day in Colstrip in southeast Montana to talk with some of the people who live and work in the community.

At a restaurant in Colstrip, waitress Kayla Campbell cycles between serving after lunch stragglers and manning the cash register.Campbell’s mother owns Rizo’s. It’s a popular lunch spot for power plant and Rosebud mine management.

“I overhear certain conversations. Being a waitress, it’s not really intended, but it happens," Campbell says. "So, it's just like, 'aw.' Lots of new faces and lots of changes, so."

Lack of communication, changing closure dates, and legislative pushes to keep the power plant open have all left Colstrip in a state of uncertainty.

But Campbell says it’s finally real for her.

“I think it’s gonna happen, but they’ve been saying it on and off for so many years,” Campbell says.

Community members seem to know something is happening. They’re just not sure exactly what or when.

This summer, the owners of Units 1 and 2 officially announced they would retire the two units by the end of the year. Recently, they moved the closure date to January.

Then on November 21, a 15 percent owner of units 3 and 4 announced it would pull financial backing by 2025 instead of 2027, which itself was seven to nine years ahead of previous estimates.

It’s the most recent in a string of announcements indicating earlier than expected closures.

Inside his office at Colstrip High School, superintendent Bob Lewandowski is about to head to a meeting about the gym’s new bleachers.

Lewandowski is busy. He’s also proud. He talks about the district’s solid infrastructure, great staff and resilient student body. He says enrollment rose nearly 8 percent this year.

“I think there’s a lot of good things here, but the media that speculates outside of here hurts our school, hurts our community,” Lewandowski says. 

Previous reporting from news outlets show about a third of roughly 330 Colstrip Power Plant employees work at the two units slated for closure in January.

Earlier this year, the owner of two Wyoming-based coal mines went bankrupt, leaving about 600 people out of work and without expected pensions.

But Lewandowski says, when it comes to the future of Colstrip’s power plant, it’s all speculation.

“And that’s the way I look at that until I know more, until I see some things happen here, we’re just prepared if we need to be,” Lewandowski says. 

Meanwhile, he says it’s business as usual for the school district, but talk outside the community has made it challenging for the school in other ways.

“We want to hire good people, but it’s hard to hire those people, the very, very best, if someone’s out saying, well I don’t know, ‘Ya know, 1 and 2 are set to be decommissioned in January, oh no, now 1 and 2 aren’t gonna be decommissioned in January, the people there are going to be working there till June,’ and those kinds of things go on and on,” Lewandowski says. 

Outside, in the main office, art teacher Karen Briggs grabs candy from a painted pumpkin and talks with an administrative assistant.

Karen Briggs has been in town for almost 14 years. Her husband teaches at a nearby college.

Briggs says as a homeowner, she’s a little concerned about housing prices, but she’s close enough to retirement that she doesn’t imagine having to move.

“Personally, we would probably be okay, but it just would be sad to be not in a thriving community. It’s very thriving right now,” Briggs says. 

Colstrip’s roughly 2,400 residents are more than 20 miles off the two main highways that run parallel to them. The town boasts a senior center, several parks, a golf course, a public pool, anda number of community events, including fitness classes for adults.

Some of the power plant owners have put money forward to help transition the community out of the announced closures.

A Colstrip committee is determining where $10 million from part-owner Puget Sound Energy will go. Avista Corp., the utility that recently announced it’s withdrawing financially by 2025, is providing $3 million in community transition funds as part of a settlement agreement in Washington state.

A few blocks over, Kelly Hert fills his truck at the Town Pump. Hert grew up in Colstrip and now works in maintenance for the city.

Over a gasoline nozzle, he talks about the revenue the state and city have collected on coal taxes, and how the city might make up the difference if coal goes.

“There’s a lot of variables in what’s gonna happen I guess. I’m a little scared, a little concerned, a little bit hopeful, maybe it’s not totally late. But it’s fairly set and done it seems at least,” Hert says. 

According to Talen communications manager Taryne Williams, Units 1 and 2 are set to retire in January. The process may stretch into the middle of 2020.

She writes that an unspecified number of the staff at Units 1 and 2 may be reassigned to Units 3 and 4.


Copyright 2019 Yellowstone Public Radio

Kayla Desroches reports for Yellowstone Public Radio in Billings. She was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, and stayed in the city for college, where she hosted a radio show that featured serialized dramas like the Shadow and Suspense. In her pathway to full employment, she interned at WNYC in New York City and KTOO in Juneau, Alaska. She then spent a few years on the island of Kodiak, Alaska, where she transitioned from reporter to news director before moving to Montana.
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