The Trip to Colstrip

[All photography by Anna Glavash]

A paunchy man with a gray mustache and ‘Western Energy Co.’ hardhat slides into the passenger seat of a white van. “Welcome to the Rosebud Mine!” he exclaims. His voice is booming and confident yet a twitch above his right eye gives away his nervousness. Wouldn’t you be nervous too, entering a small, confined space with seven young, rabid college -aged environmental studies students? The horror, they probably didn’t even shower this morning! Lucky for him, the students are on their best behavior – warned by instructors that they are guests and lucky to tour a mine most will never see.

He begins his prepared “Righteous Environmental Students Who Think Coal is the Devil” talk (he has a whole portfolio, “Potential Investors Who Want their Coal To Be Tinted Green It is So Profitable” and “School Kids Who Want to Drive Big Trucks and See Something Explode” to name a few). As they wind along fresh dirt roads, weaving among bulldozers and backhoes, he chats amiably, telling the history of the mine and the importance of coal to Montana. He explains the superior technologies that allow the partnering coal fired electricity plant to be one of the cleanest in the nation. No fly ash! Minimal carbon emissions! Minimal sulfur dioxide! Win/win/win! Western Montana is partly powered by coal (approximately 25% of Northwestern Energy’s electricity for Montana clients is coal based), but the rest is transmitted out to Seattle, Los Angeles, the Midwest. By harnessing our wild rivers the inland west is able to source electricity from hydropower – the flat parts of the country aren’t as privileged – coal is the most common fuel used for generating electricity in the U.S.

“But really, clean air and clean water are luxuries. What people really want and need are a way to heat their home and a place to plug in their computer” the man states with a confiding smile.

A student, sitting squished between her peers in the middle of the van, studies the outline of the man’s wrinkling jawline. Each crease holds a different worry – feeding his children, supporting his wife’s online shoe shopping habit, providing reliable 24/7 electricity for the Billings hospital that performed surgery on his mother. He believes in his service to his country. The student tries to see the mine, the stacks, and the piled overburden through his tired brown eyes. She bites her tongue to blood wondering, don’t your children, wife, and mother breathe this air too? Don’t they brush their teeth and cook their meals with clean water?

The van rounds a corner and parks at the entrance to a great gash in the earth. The deep, black vein of coal is easy to see, hundreds of feet of overburden (And what a burden it is! All that fertile soil and native grass and white-tail deer and clear, clean water…) stripped away like a scab. There is nothing “clean” about this process, nothing “clean” about altering watersheds and groundwater quality, nothing “clean” about covering the scab with a bandaid of topsoil and a few native grasses and calling the landscape reclaimed. There is nothing “clean” about asking the neighboring Northern Cheyenne Reservation to choose between living in poverty or participating in the destruction of their homeland. There is nothing “clean” about sacrificing rural landscapes in Eastern Montana and the Dakotas to light five star restaurants, refrigerate grocery stores or cool office buildings.

“Sometimes, when we are digging, we come across Indian artifacts” the man confides. “But we make sure to dig around them and preserve what we can. We do that out of the kindness of our hearts, not because the government makes us!” He truly believes he is being a good neighbor.

Rosebud Coal Strip-Mine

The students pile out the van and climb stairs and elevators to the roof of the neighboring Colstrip Power Station. Below them, the Northern Powder River Basin rises and falls, golden grasses shadowed by small buttes and knolls. Scattered ponderosas watch over the landscape, patient and unwavering, their roots only soaking in as much moisture from the dry soil as necessary to continue growing towards to the October sun. The grumble of trucks, conveyors and combustion fades under the glowing landscape, the clear sky fading into pink and gold.

A year later, the same student sits in her University’s library, bright fluorescent lights illuminating the textbooks she should be pouring over. Instead, she and a friend have sidetracked to the topic of coal.

“Well, coal production is a mess – good thing we don’t coal mine in Montana anymore” he exclaims.

Rosebud, Musselshell and Big Horn counties beg to differ.

Returning home, the student touches her light switch – instantly the kitchen is bathed in a golden glow. Her fingertips burn as she wonders, is the golden glow of electricity worth more than the golden glow of the Powder River Basin? Is light and warmth through the cold, dark Montana winter worth more than the tall, proud ponderosas?

She isn’t an engineer, or an energy expert, or a climate change scholar, and this isn’t her fight. But she sends a silent prayer towards the Powder River Basin, hoping that for someone, it is. The long whistle of a coal-laden Burlington Northern/Santa Fe train moans “amen”.

The Colstrip coal fired plant from afar

Stacks at the Colstrip Power Facility

Montana’s Judith Gap Wind Farm