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"It's Like Losing A Family Member:" Colstrip Power Plant Closes 2 Units

Two of the Colstrip power plant's four units ceased operation last week.
Kayla Desroches
Yellowstone Public Radio
Two of the Colstrip power plant's four units ceased operation last week.

 Colstrip Residents Concerned About Power Plant Shutdown

Two of the Colstrip power plant’s four units ceased operation last week. Residents in Colstrip voiced shock and sadness Saturday about the long-planned but still surprising shutdowns.

Pastor Casey Kluver says the day Unit 1 shut down, he was building a fence around a patch of reclaimed land where the grass reached up to his waist.

“As I was looking at the plant that day and kind of thinking about it, I was thinking about how it used to feel when we would do shutdowns for maintenance and things like that, and then the urgency to get it fired back up," Kluver said. Kluver is a former Colstrip Steam Plant worker and current part-time fencer. He’s speaking to a crowd of about 80 people in the Colstrip high school auditorium.

They’re at an unofficial listening session about the state’s largest utility and its 20-year-plan to source energy. The comment period comes at a time when two of the power plant units at one of the largest coal-fired plants in the western U.S. shuttered after almost fifty years. It’s left the community reeling.

Like Kluver, Rusty Batie with the Westmoreland coal mine recalls the routine maintenance shutdowns of Units 1 and 2. He’s among those to hang back after the listening session to mingle and chat with others.

Batie remembers watching out the window as Unit 1 shut down for the last time and the plant smokestack stopped producing that billowing white gas permanently.

"You always looked forward to it coming back up, and it’s not gonna happen again, so it’s kinda a somber experience and it’s a shame. They were running good, they coulda gone a lot longer. It’s a shame we couldn’t make it work,” Batie said. 

Duane Sessions is a fishing guide in Colorado and is visiting his hometown.

“To me, it goes beyond just stripping it down to environmental concerns, which we can debate back and forth over, but the degradation of the community is very disappointing to a lot of us that grew up here and are no longer here anymore even. So, it’s a sad weekend,” Sessions said. 

His dad, Mike Sessions, says he retired from the coal mine more than a decade ago.

“Like I say, it’s depressing to me to see those plants to go down and I know the whole community is feeling that way right now. But we’re pretty resilient here. They’re hard working people. They’ve always been. There’re a lot of good people here,” Mike Sessions said. 

Becky Miller calls the shutdowns heartbreaking and hard on the community.

“It’s like losing a family member. They weren’t perfect but we loved them anyway. They’ve provided reliable power for 45 years but more than that, they’ve given people hundreds and thousands of people jobs from construction through every-day jobs. It’s a sad day. It’s very, very sad,” Miller said. 

Around 100 people worked at Units 1 and 2. Plant operator Talen Energy says those same employees may be applied to other shutdown activities at the units or reassigned to Units 3 and 4 as needed.

Rancher Audrey Kluver says the worst-case scenario for her would be that everybody leaves because of closures.

“And we’re left behind with a depreciated town that’s not as amazing as it is now, so our greatest loss will be the community that Colstrip is," Kluver said. 

She says that’s why she’s fighting to keep the plant open. She says she hopes Units 3 and 4 continue to run and the power plant builds 5 and 6.

Coal advocacy group Colstrip United has a strong presence at the meeting and some people point to politics as the reason for the closures.

Washington-based owners have announced they’re pulling out of the plant financially in 2025 due to a new clean energy law that requires utilities to phase out of coal by that year.

Meanwhile, NorthWestern Energy, which counts some 370,000 Montanans in its customer base, wants to buy an additional 25 percent share of Unit 4. The company says it expects to have a stake in that unit into 2040s.

Copyright 2020 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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