The end of coal is bringing a wrenching transition

Mixed feelings from the anti-coal bandwagon as closures wreak havoc on small-town economies.


When I was living in lush western Montana in the mid-1960s, fresh out of college, I jumped on the anti-coal bandwagon. A greasy black haze from coal-fired heating stoves hung in the Missoula Valley during winter air inversions, and my friends and I campaigned for countywide clean-air regulations that prohibited coal burning. 

We bemoaned the trains hauling 100 railcars piled high with coal that passed through Missoula on their way to Pacific Coast depots, bound for shipment overseas. We believed that our local electricity, supplied by the now-defunct Montana Power Company, was generated using “clean” hydroelectric facilities on the Columbia and Missouri rivers.

The Elk Creek Mine, now closed, in Somerset, Colorado, a coal mining town since 1896.
Bridget Samuels

Now, 45 years later, the world has turned against electricity generated by coal-fired plants in hopes of slowing down the warming of our planet. Yet I’m feeling anything but gleeful. My feelings are very much mixed. I live in a small community in eastern Montana that has come to depend upon the Signal Peak coal mine for its economic health. 

The underground mine is our economic bedrock: It will pay about 30 percent of the total taxes collected in our county this year. Over the past eight years, its high-paying jobs have raised per capita wages in the community by about 13 percent, more than twice the state average. Closure of our coal mine would wreak havoc on our county and city.

A similar situation exists in the town of Colstrip, Montana, which has depended on the operation of four huge, coal-fired generating plants since the mid-1970s. A nearby open-pit coal mine supplies the coal for the generating plants. 

About 730 residents are employed in coal-related jobs, with pay averaging $66,000 a year, well above Montana’s median annual wage of $46,230. The plants and mine also pay 77 percent of the property taxes collected in the county, and 85 percent of the taxes collected in the city. Residents who love life in their small community of Colstrip have been fierce in their efforts to protect coal-fired electricity and their future.

Meanwhile, several recent decisions — some made by the state legislatures in Washington and Oregon — have smacked the coal industry hard in Montana. Four electric companies that own shares in the Colstrip generating plants push power into the Bonneville Power Administration that serves large coastal communities. But because of state regulations aimed at reducing dependence on electricity generated by coal, those companies are being encouraged through power rate incentives to close their Montana plants earlier than anticipated. Housing prices in Colstrip have already declined in anticipation of the community’s demise.

Closer to home, the Montana Board of Environmental Review refused to concur in the issuance of a permit to expand the Signal Peak Mine. This occurred after the Montana Environmental Information Council filed an objection to the Cumulative Hydrologic Impact Assessment written by Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality. Because the permit is in limbo, mine owners are reluctant to do the preparatory work necessary to move longwall machinery, even though leases have been in place for several years.

Another blow to coal came in mid-March when a district court judge declared the permit “void” for releasing wastewater from the Rosebud mine near Colstrip. The permit had been challenged by the Montana Environmental Information Council. If the permits for the two mines are not issued soon, work will stop, and employees will be laid off. 

Constraining coal means a world of hurt economically, according to a report issued by the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research. If coal operations are curtailed as a response to the EPA’s Clean Air Act regulations, more than 7,000 jobs in Montana will disappear, with eastern Montana’s rural counties taking the brunt of the blow.

I’ve always considered myself to be an environmentalist. I’ve taken stands against timber clear-cutting, state-sponsored wolf kills, livestock fencing that kills ungulates and birds, air pollution caused by industrial operations, and water pollution caused by mining Montana’s resources. Now, I’m torn between good environmental intentions and the wellbeing of my neighbors.

Too often, the human costs of doing what’s right for our Earth are not considered as part of the equation. Is it too much to ask that the folks on both sides of the issue sit down together and work out a long-range plan to soften the human consequences of reducing our nation’s carbon footprint?

Wendy Beye is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She lives and writes in Roundup, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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