Lost in the Land of the Ugly Stepsister

  • Great Falls, Montana


Here is a name for it: the Ugly Stepsister Syndrome. In a state known for its beauty and grandeur, its last best place-ness, its Big Sky Country appeal, there exists a place where the citizens feel shortchanged, second-best, S.O.L. in the great economic scheme of things that is the New West. And they want to make up for lost time.

They are tired of witnessing the booms in neighboring cities, where the main streets boast swanky art galleries and four-star restaurants. They are tired of paying high power bills to out-of-state energy companies. They are just plain tired of being defensive about where they live and the way they use their resources.

Of course, it doesn’t help when the promised throngs of tourists do not show up en masse for the Lewis and Clark bicentennial, and the city loses more than $500,000. But it’s not surprising when the tourists don’t show up, either, because a massive no-show is just what many in Great Falls, Mont., expected would happen, all along. Because Great Falls has the Syndrome.

It’s odd; although Great Falls considers itself an Ugly Stepsister, there is much that is desirable about the city. Even its hydroelectrically inspired nickname, “the electric city,” speaks to a sense of hope and faith in the power of the future. Great Falls is also a place steeped in history, from Lewis and Clark and their famous month-long portage around the falls, to Charlie Russell and his art museum, to Giant Springs, which gushes 213,000,000 gallons of water a day. Great Falls recently received recognition from First Lady Laura Bush as a Preserve America city, the highest national award for historic preservation. This month, the American Lung Association named Great Falls air the fourth-cleanest in the nation. When you visit, it is easy to forget that Great Falls sits on one of the biggest missile storage sites in the world. But there is a sense of pride in the missiles, based on the fact that the local Air Force base is one of the biggest employers in the city. And pride can be attractive.

So it puzzles me that Great Falls chooses to be the Ugly Stepsister. But it does. In fact, it steps up and shouts to the rest of the state: The Ugly Step-sister is who we are! And you hoity-toity, latte-sipping city slickers can go to hell.

Current case in point: A proposed coal-fired electric power plant, now in the early stages of permitting, would be sited on a bank of the Missouri river downriver from the city. But it won’t be located on just any bank along the Mighty Mo; the plant happens to be planned for the exact place on the bank where the Lewis and Clark expedition scrambled up as it made its way around the falls in 1805. The land alongside this part of the river is much the same as it was when the expedition came through; you don’t even have to squint to imagine it as it was then. For some, the entire 4,000-mile-long trail has no more sacred spot. Here Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery were tested beyond all reasonable expectation, and then proceeded on.

And here is where the officials of the Southern Montana Electrical Co-op, representing five rural power co-ops and the city of Great Falls, want to build a coal-fired, 250-megawatt power plant, which would include a 400-foot-tall smokestack, wind turbines, rail lines, transmission lines, roads, lights, steam, noise and mile-long coal trains that would effectively render the Lewis and Clark portage site unrecognizable. American taxpayers are being asked to back a loan for 85 percent of the $720 million construction price (Congress is expected to consider approving the loan later this year), with the citizens of Great Falls backing the remaining portion.

Beyond SME and its co-ops, supporters of the new power plant include a majority of the three-member Great Falls City Commission, City Manager John Lawton and a local labor union. And so far, the backers seem to be getting their way, in part by billing the plant as having relatively small environmental impacts.

According to SME’s project overview, pollutants would be handled by an “integrated Emissions Control strategy (IECS) utilizing Montana low sulfur coal and Montana limestone with additional control technology which will capture more than 95 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions and more than 90 percent of nitrous oxide emissions. A minimum capture rate for mercury emissions of 80 percent or an emissions limit of 2.0 pounds per trillion BTUs will be achieved.”

The state Department of Environ-mental Quality granted Southern Montana Electric an air quality permit on May 11, 2007, even as the state acknowledged that long-term effects on air quality would be “minor to moderate.” The Rural Utility Service has issued its record of decision allowing the plant’s loan application to move forward. Now, efforts are under way to adjust the zoning of the site, to reduce likelihood of a lawsuit that might stop the construction of a coal-fired monstrosity on top of a natural and historical treasure. Given the City Commission’s apparent support for the plant, the zoning change seems to be a formality that will almost certainly occur in the next month or so. 

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