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Know the West

Workers reflect on Oregon’s first and last coal plant

‘The people here made the plant. What we did is something that was needed.’

To reach the top of the coal-fired power plant outside Boardman, Oregon, one must first ascend 19 floors in an elevator, then climb a couple of sets of stairs, all the while passing a labyrinth of heavy metal machines and metal catwalks. These various — and, to the untrained eye, mysterious — machines work together to spin a turbine that converts heat into electricity. From the roof, the plant’s smokestack rises even higher above a barren coal yard that was once filled with piles of coal from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming. After four decades as one of Oregon’s top power producers — and the state’s number-one point-source of carbon dioxide emissions — the Boardman plant closed in October 2020. But glimpses of the present and future of energy production are visible next door and on the horizon. 


Within a couple hundred yards of the coal facility, a puff of exhaust rises from a natural gas power plant. Over the last decade, natural gas has supplanted coal as the top source of electricity generation in the United States. Now, wind turbines can be seen dotting fields of sagebrush or grain in every direction from the top of the coal plant. On a recent morning, Brandon Hendricks, the plant’s operations manager, pointed to a low hill in the distance, where the Wheatridge Renewable Energy Facility — which combines solar, wind and battery storage — is under construction. In 2019, renewable sources produced more energy than coal in the U.S. for the first time in recent history.

Every power source comes with costs and benefits to workers, nearby communities and the environment. Ten years ago, Portland General Electric, Boardman’s owner, in response to Clean Air Act lawsuits from environmental groups, agreed that the cost of coal power was too high. Since then, the plant has been slowly winding down operations. Repairs were skipped, jobs were slowly phased out as less maintenance work was done, and the utility company began offering its employees career training and assignments at other plants.

Now, crews are taking the plant apart. The first task is to make the giant machine, housed in a metal-sided building, “cold, dark and dry,” as the plant manager put it, so demolition crews can come in and level the rest. Wires are being cut. Some parts may be cleaned and sent to other plants. In mid-December, High Country News visited Boardman to talk with some of the people who ran the plant about the work they’ve done powering the region, the changes in the energy industry and the hole the closing is leaving in their careers.

Photos by Sage Brown / High Country News

Kyle Davis - Mechanic and Machinist

“I felt like what we were doing was a good thing. It was valuable and then all of a sudden it was like: Well, it's not valuable anymore. Coal's been good to me. I think it's been good to the Northwest. I hate to kick it too hard under the curb.

“And (as for) solar panels, that’s not getting done here, not like it should be. Hopefully that’ll change. I’ve got friends who work up in that industry, and that was a stellar job opportunity, if things don’t pan out with moving to another plant. That’s not my first choice, but if they actually build panels in the United States, that’s another business to get into. 

“This has been great for my family to be here, but we’re probably going to have to move to stay with the company. And, at 59, it’s kind of a bummer age to have to be making that kind of change.”

Chief Corpus - Shift Supervisor

“I came to work with Portland General Electric purely by accident. We were married, two kids and the third one on the way. We decided to take a break from school, and my in-laws lived up here in Boardman. The only place that had a decent wage was PGE.

“When I got here, the plant only had a year of runtime, so, essentially, I had 40 years of work. So, I’m thinking, I can work here my whole career. I missed it by 10 years. 

“It’s kind of like an impending doom. Here I was with the prospect of being 55 and unemployed. The way the industry changed, it’s not like there’s other coal plants to go to, and I like it here.

“I went back to school and finished up a bachelor’s. I teach night classes down at the junior college. I’m on a decommission crew for a couple more years, then I’ll retire and see where life takes me.”

Denice Strawn - Plant Operator

“Pretty much all I’ve had is male-dominated jobs. I was in the Marine Corps. I grew up roofing houses. I worked out at Hanford (the now-defunct federal nuclear production site) and at the railroad. I’ve always worked with men.  

“My son’s getting married next November, and his girlfriend is learning how to weld. I’ve been trying to encourage her to get into a welders’ union. She’s kind of afraid that, ‘Oh, I can’t do that kind of work.’ I said, ‘You’re welding, you’re doing the job as a hobby, but you can do it.’

“Girls, women need to realize that there are jobs in the union that they can do and do well. They’ve just got to be willing to step out there. They’re good-paying jobs and they have good benefits, and I’d like to just encourage them to step outside of their comfort zone.”

Dave Rodgers - Plant Manager

“I’ve been at this for a long time. And it seems like you’re always kind of preoccupied with the plant. So if you’re at home, you get a phone call, you wonder: ‘Is this the plant?’ You get a phone call late at night, on the weekend or any night, you know: It’s the plant.

“You’re always thinking ahead — what’s the next shoe that’s gonna drop?

“I feel really good about what I’ve done. What I try and tell people is: We produced power for people to use and at a fair and reasonable rate. When I go down to Portland, I always feel pretty good walking around seeing all the lights, going to a soccer game. There’s nothing better in life than to eat, drink and know that your work is good. And our work here has been really good. And the people here made the plant. What we did is something that was needed.”

Brandon Hendricks - Operations Manager

“We live in a rural community, and a lot of us are involved in outdoor activities and wildlife. People here are concerned or protective about the environment. I understand the motivation to be concerned about our environment and the effects we're having. I think a lot of it is driven by climate change and carbon emissions and those kinds of things.

“But it seems to me — and I’m going to be honest, I don’t know all the hard facts on everything — it doesn’t seem like we're totally there. We have a 600-megawatt plant, and we have to replace that power with something.

“For me personally, this kind of plant is way more interesting than a wind turbine. Say you have 300 wind turbines on a wind farm, they're basically all the same. There’s just so much more going on in a plant like this. It keeps you engaged in troubleshooting problems and understanding systems. It's just a way bigger machine. I like that part of it.”

Paz Barraza - Work Control Center Supervisor

“On the last day (burning coal), I filled in for a control operator. I was actually one of the ones who helped shut down the unit. It didn’t hit me until then: Wow, we’re not going to run this anymore. That’s kind of when it hit me.

“It’s not like it was out of the blue. I would have been more impacted by that. I kind of just see it as a process that needs to be done. I knew hiring into this job that we’d be shutting down, so I don’t think it really affected me.

“One thing I think of is the impact it has on the community. It’s a small community they have in Boardman. It’s not like big counties or big cities. So they’re losing this, but they still have the gas plant, so that should provide some economic relief.”


Sage Brown is a Portland, Oregon based artist and photographer whose work explores notions of, place, identity and the human relationship to the natural world. You can find more of his work on Instagram @sagebrown or his website www.sagebrown.com

Carl Segerstrom is an assistant editor at High Country News, covering Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies from Spokane, Washington. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor