Colstrip, Montana: a town built on coal

Company Town: Colstrip, a town built on coal from Montana Living on Vimeo.

Town ponders it future with coal slowdown


It’s big country out here.

Rolling hills covered with sage and scrub brush spread into the vast eastern Montana sky, not far from where George Armstrong Custer suffered his defeat at the Battle of Little Big Horn.

Driving south of Forsyth, capital of Rosebud County, a railroad line parallels the highway. Rail cars loaded with heaping mounds of jet black coal snake into the distance, and far away to the south is that coal’s source: Colstrip. As you near Colstrip, you see the smokestacks first. Four, gigantic monoliths over 500-feet tall tower into the sky, and puffs of white smoke gently roll out of the tops. Just below those smokestacks is the Colstrip power generating plant. The four generators burn coal to heat steam to run a turbine.


colstrip montana turbines

A worker at the Colstrip electric plant works on a turbine


Tall power lines string from the power plants to points unseen; the generators create enough electicity to power thousands of homes throughout the western United States. Like the fiefdom of a castle, the town of Colstrip itself is spread out among the folds and swales around the plant; it’s hard to be anywhere in the town of about 3,500 residents without seeing the smokestacks looming in the background. Colstrip is an ideal company town, whose residents’ lives revolve, in some direct or indirect way, around the coal-fired electricity plant. This connection is there, in part, because the town is flush with money. Like roots of a tree, the tendrils from the power plant reach out into nearly every corner of Colstrip, and indeed Rosebud County. The Colstrip power plants — there are four of them — are the largest-single corporate investment in Montana history.

Corporate money from the power plants has been lavished on the construction of the town, with nearly 100 parks in the tiny town. There is a community center that features a swimming pool, water slide, a gymnasium and park. Just a short drive across town is a nine-hole golf course. And these services are all free to local residents, as are garbage, water and sewer services. Because, the town is owned by Pacific Power and Light, one of the majority owners of the Colstrip power plants. Colstrip’s mining history dates back to 1924, when the Northern Pacific railroad began mining fuel for its steam locomotives. The railroad mined about 34 million tons of coal before diesel engines were put into use, making the steam engines obsolete. Northern Pacific sold the coal leases and the town of Colstrip to Montana Power in 1959.

colstrip montana man and daughter photo by david reese

A  man and his daughter play in a street underneath the looming stacks of the Colstrip coal-fired power plant in Colstrip, Montana. Photo by David Reese


Order and cleanliness in the streets

The streets of Colstrip are clean and wide. A sense of order prevails in the town, and there’s a quiet hush along the streets that wind from traditional neighborhoods to temporary mobile home setups constructed to house temporary workers. Mothers push their babies in strollers down the sidewalks and elderly couples shuffle along. Kids play basketball on blacktop at the community center, while a family enjoys the playground equipment. Nearby Castle Rock Lake is a haven for fishermen, picnickers and swimmers on hot summer days, but here, too, there is a dual purpose to the lake: it serves as the power plant’s main water supply.

The plant generates steam that is produced by burning coal and heating water. The steam turns four turbines that generate about 30 percent of Montana’s total electricity usage. Some 30,000 gallons of water are piped per minute over 30 miles through a 34-inch pipeline from the Yellowstone River, into Castle Rock Lake. The water is then fed downhill to the plant, about a mile away. The Colstrip power plant is located adjacent to the fuel supply — a coal mine owned my Western Energy Company. Colstrip power units 1 and 2 were built in 1976, while unit 3 went active in 1986 and unit 4 started in 1986. The coal is delivered to Colstrip’s units 1 and 2 by 120-ton trucks, while coal for units 3 and 4 is transfered by a four-mile-long overland conveyor belt. Combined, all of the units burn an average of 9.2 million tons of coal a day to create 2,094 megawatts of electricity: enough power for 132,000 homes.

colstrip coal train

A train winds its way out of Rosebud County loaded with coal.  Photo by David Reese


The Colstrip power plants are the second largest coal-fired project in the western United States. Colstrip is Montana’s energy powerhouse. More electrical power is created in this community than any other town in Montana. A 500,000-volt transmission system carries power from the four Colstrip units to customers in the Pacific Northwest. The lines stretch 497 miles through Montana: first the lines go to Townsend, and then on to a substation at Taft, near the Idaho border. The Colstrip area sits atop the Fort Union coal formation, which lies under much of eastern Montana and parts of Wyoming, the Dakotas and Sasketchewan.

With an estimated 120 billion tons, or 25.4 percent of the country’s total, Montana has more coal reserves than any other state in America. The principal coal deposit lies in the Rosebud seam, a 24-foot-thick layer of coal that sits about 100 feet underground. One person whose family depends on the Colstrip power plant is Wendy Krenik. She grew up in Colstrip. On a warm spring day she was playing with her kids at a slide in a city park, while the ever-present low hum of the power plant could be heard just behind her, where the four smokestacks loomed. Across the street is Krenik’s house. Krenik is a single mother of four children who works each year at the plant temporarily during summer overhaul — an annual procedure where one line of the power plant is shut down for cleaning.

About 400 people get hired each year for the temporary work, from pipefitters to boiler makers, carpenters to insulators. Earning about $1,500 a week, she makes more money working four months at the plant than she would working an entire year at a low-paying service job. “This is better than working at Town Pump,” she said. “I can make good money and support myself and my family. This is the best job in town.” The jobs are Colstrip are some of the best-paying jobs in Montana, and people tend to hang on to them. Its current employment levels are at their highest ever, Lisa Perry, community affairs manager for Pacific Power and Light, said. Since many of the workers have been with the power plant since the beginning in the 1970s, the plant’s first retirees are starting to emerge.

“We have very little turnover,” Perry said. In response to this worker turnover, the Montana State University/Billings College of Technology this year started a curriculum to provide trained workers at Colstrip. “That’s going to bring us the next generation of power plant operators,” Perry said. Krenik fills in the rest of her year by substitute teaching in Lame Deer, a small town on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation 22 miles away. Sitting at a picnic table, watching her children play in the well-maintained city park, Krenik is a loyal Colstrip citizen and an ardent supporter of the coal-fired generators. The Colstrip power plant, to Krenik, is a lifeblood. She speaks almost wistfully, with a kind regard, of the huge power plant. “At night,” she says, “the plant is all lit up. It’s beautiful. You can see it from miles away.” Krenik has been through the boom times of Colstrip and was there in its heyday in the 1970s and 80s when major construction on the power plant was taking place. Although there are about 3,000 residents in Colstrip now, the town swelled to about 8,500 people during construction of the plant. “It was nuts back then,” Krenik said.

There is no real downtown in Colstrip, just a sprawling series of neighborhoods that surround the power plant. Pockets of retail activity have sprung up, but for the most part, the town is focused on living and working. The town’s bowling alley, the Coal Bowl, opened this spring after a four-year hiatus. Owner Richard Chapman and his wife were looking for a business to buy in Montana, and found the Coal Boal on E Bay. Though they wanted to buy the bowling alley sight unseen, the owner recommended they come check out Colstrip first. They drove to Colstrip to inspect the business and became instantly enamored with this tiny company town.

Jim Wagner worked as a custodian for 24 years in the Colstrip school system, and looks back fondly on his time in Colstrip. Retired from the school system, he’s now working at the Rosesbud Power Plant, a small, coal-fired electricity plant just outside Colstrip. As he drives around the town, he waves at friends and comments about small town life. He lives here because of the close proximity to abundant hunting, fishing and recreation. There are leagues of all kinds in town, from bowling and shooting to golf. He’s been here 29 years.

Others, though, commute weekly to Colstrip from nearby towns like Billings, about 120 miles away. “In Colstrip you’re here for one thing: the jobs,” Wagner said. The plant has an annual payroll of $40 million, with 360 employees, according to Lisa Perry, community affairs manager for PPL Montana, which bought the plant in 1999. The nearby coal mine has about 500 employees, Perry said. Taxes on the payroll and equipment flow right downstream to Forsyth, the county seat of Rosebud County. In the 1970s expansion, Western Energy and the owners of Colstrip units 1 and 2 built 158 houses, 92 apartments, 166 mobile home pads and 184 temporary RV pads at a cost of about $13 million, according to PPL. Expansion of the town in the 1980s created another 103 homes, 84 apartments, 32 duplexes and over 1,400 RV and mobile home pads.This phase of the town’s expansion cost nearly $66 million, and included most of the municipal improvements. Young families move to Colstrip for the well-paying jobs, not only at the power plant, but also at the nearby Westmoreland Coal Mine. Elderly people, fond of the quiet pace of life, are also finding Colstrip attractive. For Amanda Capp, 26, Colstrip represents a comfortable way of life, with a good job at the elementary school and friendly people. She and her husband, who works at the power plant, moved to Colstrip in spring 2009, from Broadus, a small town in Montana that she says is “the waviest town in Montana. Everybody waves at you.” “I like living here,” Capp said. “There are a lot of benefits to a small town, especially here in Colstrip.”

According to Lisa Perry at Pacific Power and Light, about 70 percent of the plant’s employees live in Colstrip, and the rest of the workers make the commute from Billings, which is about 90 minutes away. With nearly 72 parks in town, you can hardly drive or walk a few blocks without seeing one — and unlike Montana’s more urban cities where kids seem to not play outside anymore, Colstrip’s parks tend to have people actually enjoying them. The tentacles that stretch from the coal plant to the residents’ homes don’t just supply a paycheck; the power plant is also generous with its coal supply.

Many of the homes in Colstrip are coal heated, and the coal is free to workers at the plant. If you don’t work there, you can drive up and get a pickup load. Even the Colstrip high school has a coal-fired furnace. Jonas Palmer, who works as an operator in the mine, says Colstrip is a great family town, but commerce and culture sometimes are found lacking. “It’s a great place to raise kids, but it’s a long way to buy anything,” he said one Sunday afternoon while helping his daughter learn to ride a bicycle. Again, the power plant’s gigantic smokestacks dominated the skyline while the child learned to ride her bicycle. The Palmers live in the shadows of the power plant, where Palmer’s father and grandfather have worked.

Palmer runs valves and breakers that are part of the mega-machinery in the 10-story plant. “Everything is big, and it’s loud,” he said, describing his work conditions. Since a good portion of Colstrip’s workers live out of town, Colstrip is not blessed with abundant shopping. There is only one grocery store, and the local Town Pump convenience fills in the gaps of other nutritional needs. Dennis Stevens’ father worked at the nearby coal mine for 30 years, but that was not a path of employment that Dennis chose. Instead he works at a local restaurant and bar. He and his wife, Michele, are raising their one child, Cayden, 2, in Colstrip, and while he touts the small-town feel of the Colstrip, Dennis admits it’s a dead end for young people when they hit their teenage years.

“It’s a good place to raise kids until about age 13, then there’s not much for them to do,” he said. “But the schools are really good here, and as a community, it’s pretty nice.” As the sun begins to set over the low-slung, sage-covered hills around Colstrip, and the air begins to cool, the steam rising from the Colstrip power plants becomes even more distinct.

The white puffs of steam and smoke emanate constantly from the gigantic stacks, visible remnants of the coal being burned in the bowels of the plant far below.

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