Colstrip residents sue companies for coal dust in the air and water seeping into their homes

By: - November 21, 2021 10:18 am

The Colstrip Power Plant in Colstrip, Montana (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

COLSTRIP — Richard Burnett runs his finger along the hotel he owns in Colstrip. His index finger is covered with something that looks a little like dirt, but not quite.

“I have to power wash this twice a month,” he said.

An oily dust coats many buildings in Colstrip, Montana, including the Fort Union Inn owned by Richard Burnett. Here he wipes his finger along the siding, which he says he has to power wash several times a month to keep coal dust off. (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

Technically called “fugitive dust,” it’s what happens when the winds of the Montana prairies meet the nearby coal piles just a few blocks away at the Colstrip Power Generation station.

Colstrip, nestled in Rosebud County in south central Montana, is shorthand for both the town and the power plant located in the heart of the city. And Burnett is leading a lawsuit involving dozens of people against damage he says the corporate owners of the coal-fired power plant and the nearby mine have caused to their properties.

Although the lawsuit talks about the damage done by the dust, it also raises the issue of the community’s water reservoir, which pipes clean water from more than 30 miles away in Forsyth. Because the town’s reservoir isn’t lined, Burnett said water seeping beneath it is literally tearing the town apart as foundations crack and heave.

The lawsuit names Talen Montana, Puget Sound Energy, Portland General Electric Company, Avista Corporation, Pacificorp, NorthWestern, and Westmoreland Mining.

None of the corporate owners of Colstrip were willing to speak to the Daily Montanan on the record because of the pending litigation, and neither was Westmoreland Coal, which owns the mine that exclusively provides coal to the power plant.

However, the fight in Colstrip isn’t just about whether the companies have been cutting costs and cutting corners to milk the last remaining profits out of the coal plant. It’s also a fight that pits young workers against the older ones. Multiple people who spoke for this story told about the division: Old miners catching grief from younger workers who fear that lawsuits and political battles will just hasten the end of Colstrip, which means the loss of good paying jobs. Already, many property owners are worried: If the plant shuts down, without a replacement, Colstrip stands to become a ghost town without the massive economic engine the power plant has provided for several generations.

The lawsuit

The basis of the lawsuit is that the power plant and the coal mine have not taken proper care of covering the huge piles of coal. When the wind blows, the dust from piles cover property and people in an oily grit that is toxic.

“The risk to human health by breathing in coal dust is well-documented,” the lawsuit states. “The power plant defendants do not take adequate measures to prevent fugitive coal dust from blowing onto adjoining properties.”

Part of those properties is a once-thriving mobile home park that Burnett owns. It sits in the literal shadows — less than 500 feet — from the plant. Burnett argues, in part, that years of neglect have led to multiple health problems and ruining the property with coal dust.

The lawsuit also argues that water reservoirs used to power the plant, coupled with blasting at the nearby mine, has ruined property foundations and literally torn the town apart.

A sign near a residential area in Colstrip, Montana. Over the crest of the hill in the background is the city’s water reservoir (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

“The soil saturation combined with Westmoreland’s blasting has damaged foundations and caused subsidence in homes owned by the plaintiffs,” the suit reads.

The lawsuit asks for punitive damages because they claim the conduct of the companies was “malicious, fraudulent and egregious” and that they have “intentionally disregarded the facts” to damage or injury the list of plaintiffs that runs two pages long.

Not the first time

This isn’t the first time Burnett has taken his former employer to court. He worked at the Colstrip power plant and told the Daily Montanan that he’s no tree-hugging liberal. It’s not a matter of politics, it’s a matter of doing what’s right, and he accuses the plant’s owners of acting on the cheap or ignoring long-standing problems.

Coal dust forms small piles near a conveyor belt and rail system that feeds the Colstrip power plant (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

The coal piles he said sit uncovered in area that is sometimes notorious for high winds. The long conveyor belt that transports coal to the plant is covered on top, but wind can still penetrate the covering, and on his property, just across the railroad tracks, a black, sandy dust accumulates — the fugitive coal dust.

He worked at the Colstrip Power Plant beginning in 1989. By the time he retired, he said he had become a target. At least three other former employees who worked for the plant or the mine confirmed to the Daily Montanan that they had sat in meetings where Burnett was singled out for criticism, and they said that if he was seen nearby that they should report the activity to management. They see him as a troublemaker, just looking for a reason to sue or file a report with a state agency.

Sick to death?

“No one’s policing coal dust, but now people are sick with it,” Burnett said.

Butch Dempster lives in Burnett’s park. He’s worked in either ranching or coal mining pretty much his entire life. He worked at the mine as a heavy equipment operator.

The entrance to his home has oxygen tanks lined up, a testament to a lifetime of working around coal and smoking.

Oxygen tanks outside retired coal miner Butch Dempster’s mobile home in Colstrip, Montana (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

“You have to understand that it’s a 24/7 job of treatment and water for dust control,” he said. “You can’t do it on a Monday and think you’ll be good till next Monday. It just don’t work that way.”

He ‘s pretty sure many of his former co-workers know about dust management, and know what to do in order to solve the problem. He blames management for not operating correctly.

“They don’t have anyone there that knows their ass from a hot rock, and the facts are the facts,” Dempster said. “Everything catches up with you sooner or later. Dust is dust. But coal dust is different and does more damage to a person. I knew we were working around it, but now, they’ve got us living in it.”

He tells of buying air filters only to have them clogged with the black dust of coal, not the lighter brown dust from dirt.

“Look at the roof. Look at the cars. You can’t escape it,” Dempster said.

He stops, and the sound of his breath mingles with the mix of oxygen. In the corner, his companion, a small cattle dog, growls.

“These big companies, they get bigger, and they get bigger, but they’ve forgotten the agreement with us. They’ve gotten lax,” Dempster said.

He understands the rift between those he worked around and those who work at the plant today.

“All the ones I worked with — they’re dead,” Dempster said. “Twenty years ago it didn’t bother me because everybody has to make a living, you know? And you got to work, didn’t you? But coal dust does more damage. Until someone stirs the pot, then they don’t pay attention.”

Dempster figures Burnett’s lawsuit is part of the pot being stirred — and the oxygen cord that tethers him to a chair and home confirms that coal dust will likely extract the highest price from him, regardless of the legal outcome.

Butch Dempster, a longtime coal miner who is now retired, is tethered to his oxygen, a result of a lifetime of working and smoking. He said there’s a right way for the coal companies in Colstrip to treat coal dust. (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan)

There’s little irony when he says, “They’re trying to make a killing while they can. Yes, you can support coal and support science. I’m not here to ruin anyone’s life.”

Meanwhile Burnett believes that the power plant and mine owners will try to settle because of people like Dempster.

“They don’t want to march 100 people who can’t breath in front of a jury,” he said. “They’d rather settle quietly.”

Small town, big problems

Bonnie Judge will give you a tour of her home. In her bedroom, behind a painting, a crack runs up to the ceiling. In the basement, several rooms have noticeable cracks. In the back, by the garden hose, more cracks in the concrete.

“I haven’t noticed that one,” she said as she flips on a light in the home in Colstrip.

She doesn’t go downstairs as much as she used to. She tires easily. In nearby Sheridan, Wyoming, where her husband worked at a coal mine before coming to Colstrip, she was an aerobics instructor and reported no health problems. Today, she has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.

She hasn’t smoked or worked in a mine. About the only thing she has done is sweep the dust off her back porch. From that deck, you can see the power plant, like almost any other home.

“It’s the plant or the mine,” she said of the dust.

She sweeps the porch to prevent her Schnauzer-poodle, Daisy, from tracking in the dust.

Bonnie Judge points to the cracks in her foundation of her house in Colstrip, Montana. (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan)

“It pisses the hell out of me,” she said.

She wants to move somewhere — anywhere — but who’s going to buy the property near a power plant that has no plans to stay open after coal? And with rising house prices in Montana, where would she and her husband go?

“The problem is that they can hide in a small town. The smaller, the more they can hide,” Judge said. “They want to keep jobs here so they keep their mouths shut and let it happen.”

She said Burnett has been unfairly vilified.

“Richard is trying to help people, but they don’t realize it,” Judge said. “They just want to keep their jobs and that’s it. They don’t want to speak up, especially not in the lawsuit.”

Plenty of blame, but few answers

Burnett faults the Montana Department of Environmental Quality for not doing more to check on the dust. He said one part of the DEQ monitors water, another the mine safety, and another the pollution coming from the stacks, but he said that no one looks at the other issues. He joked that plant officials always seem to know when inspectors or the media are coming — that’s when the water trucks roll out to spray down the dusty roads, mixed with dirt and coal dust, one of the few techniques for containing the pollution.

Coal dust trails behind a large mine dump truck near Colstrip, Montana (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

DEQ officials have a monitoring and testing schedule. They’re not part of the lawsuit.

The state department has multiple wells and sites that test for contamination from the power plant’s settling ponds. And they defend their record of enforcement at Colstrip, in which they’ve previously issued violations for water and air quality.

Kevin Stone, a DEQ spokesman, said that complaints and violations have come from the DEQ in a number of ways throughout the years, from problems with water or pollution. However, he said that water seeping from Castle Rock reservoir has not come up before.

He points out to the wells that are legion, saying the department is in a constant state of monitoring and reporting. Several hydrology reports on the wells and the ponds near the plant run in the hundreds of pages.

Burnett sees a bigger problem, though.

“Democrats. That’s it in a word. The Democrats aren’t going to let these workers lose their union jobs,” he said.

The Church of Christ in Colstrip. Behind the fenceline at the left are monitoring wells and pumps which attempt to keep a plume of water from an unlined reservoir from contaminating the ground nearby in Colstrip, Montana (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

‘It’s very abrasive. In the end.’

Jerry Meidinger can’t join Burnett’s lawsuit, but he’d like to.

He can’t because a federal mining settlement and program is already paying him. He has a type of lung cancer that is associated with coal mining and coal dust. He speaks about the disease he knows will take his life matter-of-factly.

“It’s something I didn’t think about in the open mine. (At home) I just used to wipe it off the counter,” Meidinger said. “It’s very abrasive. In the end. Some people don’t get it, but I was one who did.”

Black lung disease sounds like a term from a bygone era of industry without regulation, but Meidinger is still-living proof it can happen. He got a settlement after spending the bulk of his career since 1968 working off and on at Colstrip.

“It was always good money, and it kept me close,” he said.

He grew up around Miles City, not too far away. He also worked some construction, but kept coming back because of the money, working five different stints, finally retiring 12 years ago at age 65 .

He worked at the mine and said no one ever told him about the dangers of coal dust. He thought because he worked out in the open instead of below ground, he was safe.

A long belt conveyor system moves coal to the coal-fired power generation plant in Colstrip, Montana (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

“They don’t talk about safety. They just give us lung tests every so often, but they don’t really talk about it,” Meidinger said. “They said they’d tried to keep the dust onto the roads, but the open conveyor belts and anything with coal creates dust. It has to be taken care of.”

He remembers officials talking about what would eventually happen, but not how to prevent it.

“They told us everyone who retired out of here would have COPD,” he said. “But you don’t give it a thought because you’re young and the pay is good. But it’s very cheap energy, and there are things that can be done differently.”

He ticks off some of those things that could be done differently — different heating units at the plant, more air ventilation systems for the workers, water to hold the dust down. He knew what needed to be done, but no one did, he said.

He mostly uses the power of his right lung to survive, sucking on inhalers during the smoke of the summer wildfires. The upper lobe of his left lung is gone.

He made good money. He had a house and raised three kids.

“Yes, it’s shortened my life some,” Meidinger said. “The company looks at it and will keep doing it until someone like me comes along and we sue them for everything. They can’t deny what it did. It’s right there on the X-ray.

“I blame the companies more than anything. We had to argue for our wages. But companies — like any — they looked after their own pockets before they looked at their employees’. I was making money and everyone else did, so I didn’t think of it.”

Cracking up

Richard Burnett surveys the damage in his commercial property in Colstrip. The walls can be seen pulling away from the retaining wall and cracks appear in the sidewalk, walls and roofs as the ground continues to settle and shift from the leaking water from a reservoir. Burnett has sued successfully previously for the damage done by the water (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

On a summer day, Burnett travels around town, touring properties that have structural problems. In one place, the town’s grocery store’s floor slopes. Sidewalks heave and crack, and buildings are coming apart. In one part of town, the only thing left of the old Moose Club is the foundation. In another part of town, two driveway slabs sit in a neighborhood in between houses, the only part of a townhouse that once existed there. It was too far damaged by the shifting soils to save it.

Along the neighborhoods and next to churches and playgrounds, plastic pipes stick above ground — each one a test well monitoring pollution. In another part of town, in a cul-de-sac, sits one of several small painted covered box that controls a pump that tries to keep water from seeping into nearby houses’ foundations and basement.

“No one talks about these,” Burnett said. “Some don’t even know.”

A pump is covered by a decorative housing in a cul de sac in Colstrip, Montana. Its purpose is monitor and pump seeping water away from the foundations of houses built nearby (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

Meanwhile, his mobile home park, which used to number more than 100 units, has three parks — all maintained by the city, which was planned around the coal power plant’s construction in the 1960s. The parks have playground equipment, but Burnett said he’s never seen a child playing there.

“The mothers tell their kids not to go outside,” he said, walking across the patch of grass named “Currant Park.” As he does, steam rises from several of the stacks nearby and the squeaky click-clacking of the coal conveyor belt rattles in the distance.

One of three city parks in Richard Burnett’s mobile home park, maintained by the city. The Colstrip Power Plant sits in the background. During his 20 years of ownership, Burnett said he hasn’t seen kids playing in the park. He believes it’s because mothers don’t want their kids playing so close to coal and the plant (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

Burnett has lots of video he’s recorded from that spot on windy days showing large black clouds rising up from around the coal piles, heading toward town.

“No one will look at these videos. They don’t want to see. No one has said a word,” Burnett said. “The right thing for them to do is cover the coal pile, but they don’t want to because it’s too much money. I’m not an environmentalist. There’s a balance between jobs and the environment.”

He’s offered to sell his property, cut his losses and move, but any offer was a lowball one, he said, and besides, who will buy property in a town with an aging coal plant, coal dust and shifting soils?

Meanwhile, as the lawsuit slowly winds through the courts and as coal-fired plants become more scarce, one of the largest owners of the plant, Talen Energy, reported recently that it was $4 billion in debt and facing downgraded credit bonds, according to The Billings Gazette. Meanwhile, in October, the U.S. Department of Commerce announced a $2.4 million grant to stimulate the economy around Colstrip and work on retraining workers. What jobs those Colstrip residents will have in the community wasn’t quite clear.

“When they’re ordered to cover their coal pile and pay up, they will think my original price was a helluva deal,” Burnett said.

The stairs and site of the former Moose Lodge in Colstrip, Montana which was demolished because of problems with leaking groundwater from a reservoir just beyond the treeline (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.