“It’s Not Just a Town”

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Brent

I moved here when I was 2 years old. My Dad started as a traveling electrician and started Colstrip Electric in 1985. He always said he stopped here for gas money and still doesn’t have enough to leave.   We’ve grown the business from 2 people and a couple of trucks we bought from the junkyard and turned in to our first work trucks, to between 150 and 200 electricians. We run 400 to 500 pieces of equipment every day, and have 5 offices in 3 states.  And it all started right here in Colstrip.

I graduated from Montana State in Bozeman with a finance and economics degree, and never had intentions after graduation to move back to Colstrip.  When I left high school and even when I graduated college I still didn’t really have intentions of coming back, but after we got out into the real world and worked for about 6 months in Missoula,  my dad made us an offer we couldn’t refuse, so we moved back to Colstrip.  And that was 16 years ago now.

As a family, we actually looked 7-8 years ago about moving because a lot of our business isn’t located around here any more.  We looked around a half dozen different places and we just couldn’t find a better place to live.  And that’s why we decided to stay here. Its a great place to raise the kids and it’s a good place for our kids to go to school as well.

I’m not saying there isn’t problems here, but they seem a lot smaller than in other places.  My wife’s parent’s call it Pleasantville.  There’s hardly any unemployment, not a lot of poverty.  We employ between 15 and 20 people here in town.  About 10% of our typical workforce is here.

What would I like people to know about Colstrip?  I would say, if you haven’t been here, it’s hard to judge the town.  And if you’re going to judge the town then you need to come here and meet the people and see the community.  Don’t be quick to judge.

 

Mandy

I’m from the western side of the state and when I met Brent and we came here and visited, I told him “promise me we will NEVER have to move here” and he said “We won’t!  I don’t want to live here either!”

But then he was offered the job and I was starting to have health issues and became unable to work, so financially, it just made sense to move here where he had a steady job and we could live in a simple place where I could focus on my health.  So, through the whole thing I ended up having a series of surgeries, I wasn’t dying, but there were some serious health issues that I was dealing with.  I started to get it figured out, but then I had my son and it got worse and I wasn’t able to take care of him.  The whole community came together and  made me meals and they took care of my child.  I’m going to start crying. But, I fell in love with the town.  Because it’s not just a town.  It’s a place that will pitch together and raise my child when I can’t.  So, I wouldn’t leave.  I’m here for life and I’m not leaving the people we have here.  My heart is here forever.

It breaks my heart when I see what’s happening to this town and when I read what people say. They don’t know that there’s nowhere else like this.  I mean, for months I couldn’t even go to the post office without someone there jumping to help me open the door.  It’s a very unique place.  And I see it with other people too, we all gang together.  It’s not just me that has received help.

And with my children, even something like early out days [at school].  If I forget them I have five moms calling me saying “ I can take them home.”  And the CPRD activities, and the walking paths, and this is the only place that I’ve found that the churches outnumber bars.  And that is where I want to raise my children.  And, Like Brent said, we’ve looked. We have looked to move.  There are conveniences that we give up to be here and it’s sometimes hard, but I’d gladly give up a Walmart to have this community.  I’ve never seen a community like Colstrip where we all pitch in together.  We are a little bit isolated here, so we treat each other like family here.

So that’s my story.  I will fight tooth and nail to save our town for the future of my children.  This is what I want them to see and whether they choose to live here or not, I just want them to see this place to help build them up to be who I want them to be.

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Middle Ground

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I was actually born in Miles City but my parents lived here, so my Colstrip roots run deep. I lived here until I was eighteen months old just two blocks from where I live now. So my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and I had a cousin who worked and lived here. We visited Colstrip a lot after we left here because my grandparents were here, and I can still see the stacks in my memories of visiting them as I played in the yard. I never anticipated living in Colstrip again, in fact not even in Eastern Montana. But I love it, I never thought I would say that.

After College, I went to school in North Dakota and moved out to Portland and was so excited to move to the big city. But, after four years I couldn’t afford to keep living there. I was getting paid pennies, my parents were still sending me money, I couldn’t pay my bills. I couldn’t afford a place without multiple roommates, so I had to do something, I had to get out of that situation. I went back to school for speech pathology, something I had a lot of interest in and felt connected to and would help pay the bills. After I graduated from Washington State University with my Masters in Communication Disorders I moved back home with my parents to Billings for an internship with St. Vincent’s and took a job there and started dating my now husband who was from Red Lodge.  At the time he was living and working in Canada and wanted to come back to the states, and found a job in Colstrip. After having him commute back and forth from Billings to Colstrip we decided to move here and I had an opportunity to start working for the school district as a contractor in the speech department.

I really started to love Colstrip and now I truly love living here! I love seeing my friends out every day, walking and at the grocery store, I love not spending time in traffic and spending that time with my family. I love being in a small town and the way it allows me to be involved in things I wouldn’t in a bigger city, like the medical board. I love the parks and rec system, it allows me to teach my children about fitness and a love for the outdoors. I love that I have been out for a long run and had someone stop by with a water bottle for me. I received home cooked meals after my children were born, and love that my children have a safe place to grow up. It has really taught me so much about life, about being a good wife, mother and community member, because we are so involved in each other’s lives. I want to stay here, I want my kids to graduate from here and it weighs on me that this life that my husband and I have created here might be in jeopardy.

Coming here I was worried about the plant and the pollution and what it could do to me and my children, but now living here and educating myself I feel safe about it. I don’t even notice that it is a couple blocks away. I do feel strongly about doing the right thing for Mother Earth, living here I also feel strongly about people being able to make a good life for themselves by having a good job and providing a future for themselves and their children. Colstrip has great jobs and the state’s highest median income, it really provides for people and their families. I just don’t know where we would be in Montana without the millions of dollars in taxes to help support the great schools we have in our state, and public programs. I have read a lot of articles, scholarly articles from both sides of the argument and I am just not sure that the loss of jobs and tax dollars will give us the benefits that everyone wants. I don’t think that the cost benefit ratio is there. In listening to the state of the Union address overall I liked it, and then he started talking about how coal towns need to know that this is coming down the pipeline and that he has a plan for our lost jobs and that the plan is 21st century transportation. That was the part that just got me, 21st century transportation? That’s just not Colstrip. I do not see a light rail system or an ecofriendly bus system coming to Colstrip, we are a small town way out here. So ultimately that means that we have to move, we have to go to a bigger city. So what happens to middle America, to the backbone of America? If we all have to move to big cities for jobs, what happens? What are those jobs they promise, road construction? Who will pay for those projects, when industry and big business aren’t there?

Every day I worry about this, I worry about my husband losing his job, uprooting my family and having to leave Montana. My roots are here, my family homesteaded here, and I don’t want to live outside of Eastern Montana. My husband and I have looked at finding a new job because of the uncertainty here, but it is hard to justify jumping ship for a job where we would make significantly less. So sacrificing our way of life and making less doesn’t make sense for us. We are young and have been told it would be smart to relocate and that people want programs to retrain us, but where are those programs? I don’t see them replacing what we have here in income and community.

What I would like is to encourage people to not take the media’s view as their own. But do their due diligence and read both sides of the argument from legitimate sources. Know where electricity comes from, how it gets there, who pays for it. I feel like there are more than two sides to this argument, more than for and against coal, we are an innovative people as Americans. Can’t we think of a middle ground to develop technology for clean reliable coal? We have already made great strides, I am sure we can do more. The money being tied up in all the environmental law suits and so forth, if we used that money to develop these technologies and work together on a solution that would benefit everyone. There has to be a solution that doesn’t involve the elimination of fossil fuels.

 

We Are Strong Here

Roger and his wife Joni work in Colstrip and live just down the road in Ashland, MT .  They have three great kids who have attended Colstrip schools.   He has his degree in Forestry from Washington State University and is proud to be a member of the Native American community here in Montana.  

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“I was raised on the reservation until I was in fifth grade and moved away to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to the big city. I graduated High School in Albuquerque.

So I grew up mostly in Albuquerque, and moved back to Montana in 1992 because I was rodeo-ing. I met my wife at a rodeo and moved back here from Washingington State where I was going to college.   I moved back here and started teaching at St. Labre Catholic Indian School. I taught there for 15 years.  I started out as a theology teacher, and  was also the librarian, and then I taught 5th, 6th, and 7th grade math.

Eight years ago I decided that I didn’t want to teach anymore and wanted to try something new, so I applied at the plant and got the job. My wife applied three years ago and she got a job. She was also a teacher at Northern Cheyenne tribal schools before she started at the plant.

As far as our kids being here, I couldn’t be any happier. The education that Colstrip Public Education provides, the academic and athletic endeavors that these kids can get into, not only that but the after school programs. They take care of the kids, they go above and beyond taking care of the kids. They have the Community CPRD kids that is sponsored by the plant and the mine. Our sports programs are one of the top in the state all the time. I thank Colstrip that my boy was able to get noticed and to go to college on scholarships, I mean that is huge. He is in a division one school and can be an example to the kids on the reservations. We have three division one [Colstrip graduates] right now. That says a lot about what our programs can offer kids and the talent that is here.

As far as Colstrip and the power plant and all that, being Native American and Cheyenne and enrolled Crow, everybody talks about how we don’t want to mess up our land with the coal, and digging coal.  I was educated in that side of it, and you can dig the coal and you can reclaim the land better than it was! You can tell by our surroundings here in Colstrip, this is beautiful country. My minor in College was soil conservation and wildlife biology. Everything is science, and I studied all these different areas of ash cap and what this Earth is made of, at least on this part of the world anyways, and as far as reclaiming it, it is reclaimed to even better than it was- greener than it was. That disturbing of the soil promoted the growth, if you ever notice a field that the cattle are grazing it is always green and supple, and the part that isn’t is pretty dry and barren.  That disruption of the soil promotes the new growth.

All that people see is everything they read in the newspaper.  They hear one side of the story, and it drives me crazy, cause I want to tell them that the people writing are people that have never been to Colstrip. My son was at Rocky, and now Montana State and they are saying that Colstrip is a bad spot, that we are polluting the land and the skies. My boy was an advocate for Colstrip, and was always standing up for it, he has lived here and knows what it is like.

Our tribe down south of town has a class one air act. It was unprecedented legislation that they got that. It is an agreement with the tribe that if this power plant put out more pollution than was regulated on the agreement with the tribe they would have penalties to pay to fix it. It is monitored hourly and daily at pollution check stations all over the reservation just south of town. I don’t think anyone knows about that class one air act.  Everything that leaves our stacks goes south and over the reservation. If we were polluting the world like everyone says, take a look at the facts.  Take a look at the results of what is coming out of the monitor stations. It is regulated and includes any pollution that comes on the reservation or goes over it. If it was truly bad, they would have been penalized by the tribe and it would have been all over the news. Class 1 Air Standards are what is allowed in National Parks, so the air quality here is as clean as a National Park, or at least over the reservation just south it is.  I hope people know the Northern Cheyenne Tribe had a class one air act and they can look up the results.  ‘Cause when the plants were built they were thinking the same thing, that there was going to be all this pollution, and so they got this monumental legislation passed to protect the reservation, and it shows that we aren’t polluting like everyone thinks, or we would have been held in violation of that act.

Colstrip Power Plant has an environmental personnel that monitor hourly, daily all of the ponds and our monitor stations.

The biggest thing for me is that I want people know what it is like here. If I didn’t know what it was like here I would think it was one of the most polluted cities in the United States just based on the media. If I would have believed everything I read, I would have never come. They make it sound like the air is polluted, the water is polluted. This is one of the most beautiful places, it is so green. Just come out and see it for yourself. Now people are thinking it is shutting down and they don’t even want to come see for themselves. But, we are strong here.”

 

For more information on the Class 1 Air Act, you can read the link below and research online. 

http://www.martenlaw.com/newsletter/20070411-reservation-air-quality

 

Energy: A Family Affair (Part 4)

This is part 4 of a 4 part series about three generations who have taken coal from the ground to the power plant and across the power lines to feed our state with affordable energy.  Molly has worked in the energy industry in Montana both as an engineer in Colstrip as well as in Laurel, working with Cloud Peak Energy as their community relations public affairs manager.

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“We took a little bit different turn in our lives about two years ago when we both got different positions. Rob is now working for CHS Refinery in Laurel, and I work for Cloud Peak Energy which is another coal surface mine in Montana.  I am their community relations public affairs manager.  So I am still in coal; I’m promoting it now. I think I am more passionate about my job.   I enjoyed the engineering and the reclamation, but now I am getting to promote it. Although I left the community of Colstrip,  I wish people could see on a daily basis how hard I am fighting for Colstrip!  We’re a totally separate entity, but if Colstrip survives-  that means the Coal industry is going to survive.   I get to go around and preach the importance of Coal, and use my technical background to help and my childhood experience of growing up in Colstrip.  I get to go up to Helena and talk about how just the mine I work with puts 53 million dollars into the state in taxes and revenue. I get to tell the city of Billings that each car of coal is approximately 42 million in tax dollars. Those dollars are the school systems, those dollars are the roads that their cars sit on. I am actually surprised at how much people don’t realize how much money coal is putting into the economy and if [Colstrip power plant units] 1 and 2 go down that basically three major operations in butte Montana will no longer be able to operate because of the power costs.

My husband works for CHS right now and they get their power from units 1 and 2 in Colstrip. If they have that rate increase that is going to affect what they can do, the expansion they are trying to go through. Great Falls-  their refinery gets their power from 1 and 2. Right now we are a state that exports power, we produce enough power that we can take care of what we need and have enough to export it. If you shut down 1 &2 which is what we in the state use, we are going to have to import that power into the infrastructure. Places like Great Falls, Butte, CHS refinery in Laurel, those are gonna be the places that struggle too. So now you are looking at refinery workers, metal miners, silicone factory that produces solar panels, and if they can’t produce them at a low cost even with the subsidies they will have to shut that down. They are riding the lines, even with the power costs now, so now you are looking at people being out of housing because they can’t afford their power bills. You are looking at unemployment in the state of Montana, even state officials, because we won’t have the tax dollars to pay them. Cutting coal money cuts tax money.

I am in public relations, so part of my job is to go write the big checks saying “we support ‘call for kids.’”  It’s a program from St. Vincent’s that helps kids going through cancer and different issues. As a mining company, we can give money to things like that. Also, to Montana Family services. I get to go provide for them. So we are not just giving tax dollars. Most of the companies, just like in Colstrip, are giving money to the communities of Montana. When I get to go into the Montana Family Services, I get to tour and learn that most of the people that they are serving are those older people who have paid off their house, but they have a choice every month to pay their power bill or to eat.  Our donations and this organization helps to take meals to these people so they can eat and continue to stay in their homes.

The biggest effects of being out of Colstrip now, and going to Helena and Great Falls and throughout the state of Montana, as someone growing up with this, is seeing how people come to understand  the effects on the entire state. It’s not just ‘save the employees of Colstrip’. It’s the state of Montana that is in kind of a crisis. If we lose the millions of dollars at the mine I work for, the millions of dollars from Colstrip, they are going to have teachers cuts, they aren’t going to have the road systems. We are just not going to have the money. You look at the state of Wyoming, look at the school systems there and how much they can pay their teachers, that’s coal money!  If we could just find a balance with that, and continue to produce the coal we are, we are going to be able to put those tax dollars into Montana. And we are doing it responsibly, there are statistics that since the 80’s we have reduced the CO2 emissions by 80%. It is stuff like that the other side of the state doesn’t see.  It is time to spread the message past our boarders here. We get it here, we can speak it here, we have grown up with it. It’s my biggest challenge to get it past there to get it to Washington DC.  Those are my biggest challenges. Luckily I grew up here so I can speak it, I can be passionate about it, and move it to those who aren’t educated about it.”

 

 

 

Energy: A Family Affair (Part 3)

This is part 3 of a 4 part series about three generations who have taken coal from the ground to the power plant and across the power lines to feed our state with affordable energy. Molly has worked in the energy industry in Montana both as an engineer in Colstrip as well as in Laurel, working with Cloud Peak Energy as their community relations public affairs manager.

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“I moved here when I was just a baby and grew up in Colstrip. I fell asleep to the flashing lights of the of the power plants along my walls at night.  I graduated from Colstrip High School and, at the time, could not wait to get out of Colstrip and leave forever. In hind sight,  it was probably the most dreamy childhood. We had the parks, CPRD; I lived next to a park that had a pool and a basketball court, almost anything you could want. A place where you could walk anywhere, everyone knew your business, which could be bad, but most times was good because they were watching out for ya. Just had a pretty ideal childhood.

When I Graduated, I got a volleyball scholarship and went on to Montana Tech. When you go to Montana Tech there are pretty limited choices on what you can become, engineering is what it is known for, so I followed in my brother’s footsteps and started out in Geology and switched to Mining/Engineering. And in my head I was kind of going to school for the volleyball, but school was part of it too and I tell people I just fell into the Mining/Engineering degree because I just didn’t know what else to do at that time. Growing up in Colstrip, I could speak the language of mining and knew the concepts and the words. I even remember graduating thinking, ‘What in the world did I just get a degree in?’, but at the same time I was able to get into an industry that I grew up with and knew about. So I got my degree and my husband and I lived in Louisiana for a year and then we got the opportunity to come to Colstrip. We are both engineers, we met at Montana Tech, and it was rare that we were both able to get jobs in the same town, especially a town as small as Colstrip, so we hopped on that chance right away. He is a mechanical engineer and got on with the Power Plant. We moved and had children here and built our first home here up on CastleRock Lake and we were able to give our kids the childhood I had. On top of having Grandma and Grandpa just over the hill, they had the community watching them, they had every CPRD program, they got to have all those benefits I had as a kid. The neat part about it is that all my friends who were also never ever coming back to Colstrip are slowly coming back because the jobs are so amazing. But, they are bringing spouses so we were getting new friends and old friends,  ya know?  In true Colstrip tradition, you make your own fun, you take advantage of these park systems, and you raise your children together.

And so my kids having a Grandfather, Great Grandfather, and their Dad and Mom in the power industry they probably speak power better than anyone. One of the cool stories I would tell to my kids to explain it, is that I would dig the coal at the mine, my husband would put it in the boiler to create the steam to create the power, and their Grandpa Ed would put it on the power lines so that their Grandma Cindy could bake her Home-Ec class cookies. My kids couldn’t actually translate what power is, but they could understand how power works and the necessity of it. So I have actually grown up in a family with so much influence and then to get stories about the olden days with the power and they get stories from my Dad when the power would go out and being up in the switch yards, so it has been very cool to raise a family that actually understands. Where most people don’t know why the light flicks on; my kids could preach it basically.”

 

Energy: A Family Affair (Part 2)

This is part 2 of a 4 part series about three generations who have taken coal from the ground to the power plant and across the power lines to feed our state with affordable energy. Ed is the father in our story, working on the transmission and distribution side of the energy produced by the plant.  

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“I graduated from Laurel, worked for the railroad, then to the service, and back to the railroad. I got on with Montana Power 38 years ago. Been down here in Colstrip for 34 years, because I was transferred within Montana Power during construction of units 3 and 4. We came and had three kids here, they were educated here, and they have all gone on for additional education and done really well in engineering and nursing. I attribute that success to the school systems in Colstrip, that I feel was the top in the state.

I was on the Volunteer Fire Department and retired, but was Chief for little over 13 years. My wife and I are both looking to retire and may stay here a little longer because of all that is going on with the housing market. We would like to be closer to Grandkids, but we aren’t dissatisfied with Colstrip. The minute we moved to Colstrip we like it, it reminded us of when we were in the service, people were from everywhere and they got together here. There were a lot of good times with a lot of good people. And now we see all these young kids coming to town and it’s neat to see kids in the parks. We went through a period where there weren’t any kids playing because most people were my age and their kids went off to college. Now seeing all these little kids is really a neat thing.

I’ve had a number of people in the past 30 some odd years, relatives, or workers or whatever come here, that have never been to Colstrip before. They thought Colstrip was going to be a pit from what they heard, and It may have been during construction, but people come now and can’t believe that it isn’t anything like what they thought Colstrip would be like. And I am proud of that. The people have made this into a really nice town.

A lot of people rely on this town for employment. If they shut the plants down, or if they start to shut them down, they are gonna feel it in Billings. Where do people in town shop? There are good paying jobs here and they get their groceries and stuff in Billings and Miles City. The big companies too that rely on the plant, like valve companies, pipe companies and a bunch more I don’t even know, and a whole lot of other people that it will hurt. I don’t think people realize how much it will hurt.

I mean you just don’t build these power plants quickly. The way they shut down and tore down the Corrett plant, if they do that with [ power plant units] 1 and 2, they don’t come back in a hurry. They take years to build, and I hope the powers that be take some consideration before they jump off a cliff.

I am responsible for all the power here in town. From the Plant, the transmission and distribution in town. We have to hang tags when people don’t pay their power bill and go shut their power off. Living in Colstrip, I don’t have it as bad as living in Billings or Laurel where there are a lot more elderly or single moms with kids; where I would have to go shut their lights off. I try work with them as much as I can around here, which like I said isn’t much because the employment is so good. The retired around here had good jobs and so don’t have the same problems with paying their bill, but I still have that once in a while when I go to Hardin. You have people right now that are struggling with their power bills. Going up to that door and telling them you need ______ dollars or you’re going to shut their power off, especially the elderly and single mothers, that is the hardest thing in the whole wide world. The power company tries really hard to work with them. But it’s the ones that don’t have the money, that if they close these down, it’s gonna affect. It will really hurt the people who can’t afford it now.”

 

Energy: A Family Affair

This is part 1 of a 4 part series about three generations who have taken coal from the ground to the power plant and across the power lines to feed our state with affordable energy. Dick Black is the grandfather in our story, living and working in the energy industry of Montana for many years.  

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I live in an old folk’s home in Laurel with my lovely bride, who has been my lovely bride for 65 years. I worked for Montana Power for 39 years, 8 months, 11 days. I retired in the early 90’s. I started out as a laborer, for a $1.50 and hour, then progressed to ground man, apprentice, lineman, patrolman, sub-foreman, and town manager.

I got into the power industry because I was in the Navy before and the only good jobs were in the refinery,   so I tried to get on there after the Navy.   I had a brother in law who worked at the refinery in Cody and they wouldn’t hire me because of nepotism.  But, I tried to get on in Laurel and I got offered a $1.25 as a laborer at the new service station by where the old Corret Plant was, and I moved my way up from there. My Grandmother told me I was the luckiest man in the world to get on with Montana Power. They treated everybody as fair as they could. When my son in law Ed had a chance to get on with the power company I was so glad to hear that.

I just love to tell about Montana Power and my time with them. It’s been good to me and good for my family.

I feel badly about what is going on in our state right now and the energy situation, especially the coal. Coal is just an interim, in my opinion, fuel. And we are not ready for the rest yet. Coal is the go to during this particular time. Spending time at Western Energy, it made me think that much more of the miners and the people who mine the coal.  I just think that we are making a knee jerk thing out of this big fight. There are people who are smart enough in this world to figure out how to use coal and make it economically beneficial to the people who buy power. There is a way to find a solution to burn coal for us all.

If the power prices take a jump, you know who pays for it, the customer. It will raise my rent, my room and board. R & B, that’s what we used to call it.  What will the people do who didn’t have the great job I did? It is a terrible thing that will happen.