A grim picture of economic collapse in Richland County was painted by community members at a hearing in front of the Public Service Commission (PSC) on Tuesday, Oct. 29, in Helena. Representatives of Montana-Dakota Utilities (MDU) were also in attendance.
PSC took public comments in reference to the planned 2020 closure of the Lewis and Clark Station in Sidney. The station is one of three coal-fired electric generation units being retired by MDU in the next few years.
Montana Rep. Joel Krautter talked about the big-picture impact the closure will have on Richland County.
“Behind me is a full room. Full of concern about the future of our area. Full of doubt, as you’ve heard today, on the numbers and information that have been provided and that we feel this decision has been based on,” Krautter said.
Krautter explained to the commission that in rural Montana, communities, businesses and industries are “extremely interconnected and depend upon each other for continued sustainability.” The loss of one business essentially has a domino effect on the area.
“That’s why I’m so concerned here today,” Krautter said. “When it’s a decision that can have such wide-ranging consequences, I believe we have to do a thorough vetting.”
About a dozen Westmoreland Mining LLC employees attended the meeting to testify about the impact on the Savage coal mine. Joe Micheletti, Westmoreland chief operating officer, spoke to the viability of the mine.
“We’ve invested heavily in the Savage mine. It’s a little one. We put a lot into equipment in that mine five or six years ago. We work really, really hard to be a top-notch fuel provider for MDU and Lewis and Clark,” Micheletti said. “Including ordinary inflation, we have delivered fuel for that plant for $0.16 a ton cheaper than we did five years ago. I don’t believe we are a party that is suspect to suspicion that we’re not going to do our part.”
Most of the Savage mine employees who attended provided comment for PSC. They spoke about loving their jobs, and nearing retirement and suddenly being faced with the possibility of a career change. They expressed their fear over the changes happening in their communities.
“There’s nothing worse than to stare at your family and all the questions they have about moving,” said Chris Bennett, Westmoreland Savage mine employee. “It’s becoming evident if the power plant shuts down, I’m going to have to move my family somewhere else – Wyoming, Nevada. I hear ‘re-education.’ I’m too invested in coal mining. I’m a miner. I can’t start over.”
Superintendent of Savage Schools Martha Potter gave testimony about the potential impact on tax dollars and ultimately the school system. She estimated $125,251 will be lost if the Savage mine closes.
James Brower, manager of the Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project, speculated about the eventual effect on Sidney Sugars, which many believe will also fall victim the economic collapse, thus sparking an agricultural crisis as well.
“The voluntary closing of coal operations at the Lewis and Clark plant involuntary closes the coal mine,” Brower said. “Closing the coal mine ceases the fuel supply for the Sidney Sugars processing plant. Sidney Sugars invested over $80 million between transportation and other operations in the community of Richland, Dawson and McKenzie counties. Without that plant, the beet farmers that raise over $40 million worth of beets every year have no place to get their beets processed. So when the beet farmers can no longer sell their beets, that greatly reduces the amount of taxes and the property value they pay into Richland and Dawson and other counties.”
Mike Green, an attorney representing MDU, spoke to PSC about the regulatory process required to make such a decision.
“You cannot accuse the management team of Montana-Dakota of not having a heart or not being willing to make difficult decisions in the face of overwhelming sympathetic situations like what you heard today,” Green said. “Unfortunately, in this regulatory regime, you don’t let us count heartstrings. You don’t let us count jobs. You don’t let us county community impacts.”
The Montana Consumer Council, who in charge of speaking for rate-payers in front of PSC, is who Green said would need to take the passion and emotion displayed at the hearing into consideration when addressing the commission. A practice he said has not been done in the past.
“That is not in the arithmetic we are allowed to use to make rates or to pass on these kinds of costs to the customer,” Green said. “We welcome any interactions or any movement that the Montana Consumer Council is able to make to allow the company to consider these thing in its rates.”
Green also addressed the unanswered question from the July MDU meeting in Sidney about what other companies had been approached to possibly purchase Lewis and Clark. At the time, MDU did not have proper permission to share the information.
“The companies that were contacted are Otter Tail, NorthWestern Energy, MinnKota and Black Hills. All five of those entities said they were not interested in this power plant,” Green said. “Montana-Dakota can only say, ‘This is for sale. Can you take it?’ We don’t have the ability to provide an economic incentive package. We don’t have the ability to provide property tax abatements. We don’t have the ability to tap into economic development grants, which may inspire someone else to take this plant.”
PSC members will take the comments provided into consideration. A public hearing is tentatively scheduled with PSC and MDU for early January to review their integrated resource plan and the matter may be readdressed at that time.
With all the uncertainty, Sidney Mayor Rick Norby left the crowd with some hope during his testimony.
“We’re united. We’re not going anywhere,” Norby said. “We’ve done it on everything that’s happened in our area. We are united.”