Colstrip, Montana and the Tragedy of an American Coal Plant (Book Review)


Waste ponds and evaporation ponds, at Colstrip, 1984. Photo Credit: David T. Hanson

In his book Colstrip, Montana (distributed by D.A.P.), photographer David T. Hanson tells the story of a town that would never have been founded if it weren't for the fortune in dirty coal that lies beneath it—around $350,000 per acre. It is a story told through Hanson's photographs; a Montana native, Hanson has been photographing Colstrip since the early 1980s. The book's only text consists of an introduction and a concluding essay by writer and environmental activist Rick Bass.

The 81 photographs that are the heart of the book are sobering. They highlight not only the environmental destruction that the mines and plant have wreaked on the landscape, but also the overwhelming industrialism that surrounds Colstrip's inhabitants. They insist on the essential ugliness of how we get this coal: it cannot be right or healthy, for us and our world. There are no people in the photographs, but the human hand print is everywhere.
Mine spoil piles and intersected water table, 1984. Photo Credit: David T. Hanson

Reaching 700 feet into the air, the Colstrip power plant is the tallest man-made structure in the state of Montana. The plant and the open pit strip coal mines that fuel it sprawl over fifty square miles in southeastern Montana. Every minute, the power plant consumes 22,000 gallons of water. Every hour, the plant emits more than four hundred pounds of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere; the resulting clouds rain sulfuric acid on Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota. In that same hour, the plant burns 1,200 tons of coal—almost 2.5 million pounds.


After a coal blast in the pit, 1982. Photo Credit: David T. Hanson

In his poignant essay, Rick Bass bemoans the destruction of the land and calls for a turn towards alternative energy production:

It's not just the devastation of the land that goes on the loss side. Burning Montana's coal increases our carbon footprint and accelerates global warming. and there are much cleaner sources of fuel than coal. Coal's just about as dirty as it gets, and in the West, Montana's is among the dirtiest. The extraction of Montana coal is above all else a story of faulty accounting--of costs that have been ignored.


Strip mine, power plant, and waste ponds, 1984. Photo Credit: David T. Hanson

Compared to the utter destruction Hanson shows us, the argument that proposed wind turbines in Montana would be an eyesore seems like the punch line to a bad joke.

More on the coal industry:
Extreme Coal - Poland's 96% Dependency Could Be World Record
Know Your Energy: The 5 States That Supply 73% of US Coal
EPA Claiming Coal Ash Reduces Greenhouse Gas Emissions

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