Colstrip, Montana

Strip mine, power plant, and waste ponds, 1984.
Strip mine, power plant, and waste ponds, 1984. [Photos © David T. Hanson]

In the early 1980s, David T. Hanson was part of a generation of photographers who took to the skies to gain a new perspective on mines, dams, power plants and pipelines: the industrial earthworks of North America. Landscape photographers like Edward Burtynsky (Mines, 1983-85), David Maisel (Black Maps, 1983-88), Ron Fricke (Koyaanisqatsi, 1982) and Peter Goin (Nuclear Landscapes, 1991) conveyed an environmental urgency in their work that distinguished it from the “cool modernism” of the New Topographics (1975).

What happened to those landscapes of urgency? Hanson’s study of Colstrip, Montana, provides an instructive history lesson. Colstrip is a small town of industrial workers living on reclaimed mining land and working at the Rosebud coal mine or at a massive power plant complex, one of the largest in the country. The photographs presented here were made in the early 1980s and exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1986, and were finally published as a book in 2010. That spurred writer and environmentalist Rick Bass to take a road trip to the mine country, to see what had become of the area:

I’ve lived in Montana for over two decades, in the far northwestern corner, the wettest part, and I had heard about the “sacrifice zone” of the southeastern part of the state, and about how it has always been isolated and barren — as if that emptiness summoned a terrible loneliness that people could use to rationalize the degradation and destruction. … I had seen [Hanson’s] pictures long before I visited the place, but when I finally went to Colstrip, over twenty-five years later, I was shocked and surprised anyway. I had thought, for instance, that on the eastern side of the state, folks would be careful with something as rare and valuable as water. Not so. The power companies were still slinging it all over — piping it in from far away to aid in the processing of waste slurry, sucking it out of the ground, and then, once it was contaminated, letting it seep back down into the groundwater. An anthropologist in the future could infer that it was here on history’s timeline that our species went mad.

I drove on, heading for Colstrip through the blue dusk and into the night. Every now and again I descended one of the hills into a little velvet basin of pines and grass where the lone light of a ranch burned, but mostly there was only darkness until I reached the town, which was much more beautiful than I had imagined it would be. The power plant blinked, pulsed, and glowed like a brain hard at work, or a dream illuminated in the night. It sat right in the heart of Colstrip — beautiful yet ominous, like an electric toad, black as obsidian and laced with rows of light. It could have been the set for a Batman movie. A toxic citadel.

Much has changed in the last three decades — our environmental awareness, our aesthetics —and yet the economic forces that shape southeastern Montana are largely the same. With the publication of these photographs, Hanson opens a window on that earlier era of environmental urgency. The automobiles and the color palette are stuck in the Reagan era. But Hanson’s “Notes on Colstrip” raise the question: How much have the politics of coal changed in the age of Obama?

View Slideshow


Notes on Colstrip

Colstrip is located in southeastern Montana, in an area where the High Plains rise to meet the Rocky Mountains. The site is flanked to the east by open rangeland and farms and ranches in a terrain covered with yucca, sage, native grasses and occasional pine and cedar trees. On the other side of Colstrip are the forested foothills of the Bighorn Mountains. The area is rich in minerals and other natural resources and has become a prime example of “energy colonization.” It serves the dominant interests of the East and West Coasts, which exploit the deposits of coal, oil, natural gas, oil shale, uranium, copper and other rare metals buried there.

The coal mined near Colstrip is part of the Fort Union Formation, which underlies much of eastern Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas and Saskatchewan. It dates from the early Paleocene era, some 65 million years ago. At that time, the continent was covered by an inland sea stretching from the present-day Rockies to the Appalachians. Eastern Montana was at the shifting edge of this sea, which was bordered by swamps and active volcanoes to the west. … Over a period of five to ten million years, up to 500 feet of decaying vegetation accumulated in the swamps. The piling of new on old was made possible by weaknesses in the earth’s crust that caused the bottoms of older basins (such as the Powder River Basin, which includes the Colstrip area) to slowly sink. As the young mountains to the west began to lift, sediment eroded off their slopes, filling in the basins to the east and burying the plant material, cutting off the hydrogen and oxygen and preserving the carbon. Gradually, over eons of active mountain building, the compacted vegetation was buried to depths and under pressures and increased temperatures that accelerated its transformation and caused it to become soft, flaky, low-sulfur subbituminous coal. This strata reached its maximum depth about 30 million years ago. With the uplift of the Rockies, wind and water slowly eroded away over five thousand feet of the overlying rock, leaving only 80 to 100 feet of soil and rock covering a seam of coal 24 feet thick. …

In relatively recent times, since about 1700, the place that is now Colstrip was part of the tribal land of the Crow, who called it both “Where the Enemy Camps” and “Where the Colts Died.” The town came into being in the 1920s, when the Northern Pacific Railroad began mining coal there for its steam-powered locomotives. In 1959, after diesel power had replaced steam, Northern Pacific sold its coal leases, its mining machinery and the townsite to the Montana Power Company. As more stringent federal air-quality controls were enacted and municipal utilities began looking for low-sulfur coal, Montana Power expanded the mine for its own coal needs as well as for sales to industries and utility companies in the Midwest. During the national energy crises of the early 1970s, two coal-fired units generating electrical power were built at the mouth of the adjacent Rosebud Mine. In the early 1980s, two larger units were built. Although the power plant was far from where the energy was actually needed, it was also far from urban areas already suffering serious pollution problems.

The Colstrip power plant is the second largest coal-fired power plant west of the Mississippi. It is the tallest man-made structure in Montana, with stacks that rise over 700 feet into the sky. It is now owned by a consortium of power companies and produces more than 2.2 million kilowatts of electricity a year. Over two-thirds of the electricity is exported to the Pacific Northwest via an extensive system of power transmission corridors cutting a swath 300 feet wide across nearly 1500 miles. The mines and industrial site extend over 50 square miles. Since the mines first opened in 1924, over 550 million tons of coal have been dug up. Enough earth has been moved to fill both the Erie and Panama canals five times over. Yet there are still more than 120 billion tons of coal reserves in Montana: 25 percent of the total coal reserves in the United States.

The Rosebud Mine has been owned by the Westmoreland Coal Company since 2001. The strip-mining method employed is relatively straightforward. After a 10-to-20-year plan has been approved by state and federal agencies, a vast grid of one-to-two-mile-long adjacent bands is mapped out. Layers of topsoil and subsoil are removed and stockpiled for later use in reclaiming the land. Another hundred feet of sandstone, shale and clay “overburden” is drilled into, packed with ammonium-nitrate and fuel-oil explosives, and blasted. A fleet of mammoth power shovels does the work of clearing away the earth and rock to expose the seam of coal below. The largest of the earthmoving machines at Colstrip is the Marion 8200, an eight-million-pound walking dragline that was being built in Colstrip when I began to make photographs there. It was assembled on-site over 18 months at a cost of nearly $20 million. The size of a large office building, complete with control rooms and power decks, the Marion 8200 is emblazoned with the image of a buffalo, the logo of the mining company. It has a boom that reaches more than three hundred feet out over the earth, and it carries a shovel that can move a hundred tons of rock in a single bite. The dragline works its way up and down the strips, systematically removing earth and rock from one strip and dropping it into an adjacent strip from which the coal has already been excavated.

The coal is loaded into haulers and trucked to tipples, where it is crushed and then transported via conveyers to storage areas or to railroad cars. Twenty-five percent of the coal mined at Colstrip is shipped to Midwestern power companies. The rest is fed into the Colstrip plant to fuel giant steampowered turbines. These boilers consume 1,200 tons of coal each hour, or roughly one acre of land every day and a half. The plant is dependent on water to both fuel and cool the steam generators and to flush out its waste products. Since Colstrip is located in a dry area, two pipelines have been built to tap into the Yellowstone River, 30 miles north. The plant consumes nearly 22,000 gallons of water every minute. A 50-day backup supply is stored in a reservoir that also serves as the town’s recreational facility.

Surrounding the plant and town is an extensive system of ponds containing a variety of industrial waste products generated by the plant. The majority of these are settling ponds in which suspended waste material slowly sinks to the bottom, where it can be dredged up and trucked to nearby dump sites. There are also a number of warm-weather evaporation ponds in which the wastewater is channeled through a system of sprinklers that spray it into the air so that it can evaporate, leaving desiccated waste on the ground. Inevitably, the waste from the various ponds works its way into the underground water table and local and regional streams and rivers used for irrigation and for livestock. … The plant emits more than 400 pounds of sulfur dioxide each hour, in addition to nitrous oxides and a variety of other toxic substances. According to a 2009 report by Environment America entitled “America’s Biggest Polluters,” the Colstrip plant is one of the dirtiest plants in the nation.

The final stage of the mining process is the reclamation of the land. Federal and state laws require that the mine pits be refilled, graded to the approximate contours of the original terrain, covered with subsoil and topsoil and then seeded with a mix of trees, shrubs and native grasses resembling the regional vegetation. Reclamation is relatively expensive. Costs run between $16,000 and $25,000 per acre. (On the other hand, the coal mined from that acre of land is worth approximately $350,000.) Although some mined land at Colstrip has been reclaimed, primarily in high visibility areas along highways or in one or two public demonstration sites, most of the disturbed land has been left unreclaimed. Areas mined prior to 1977, when reclamation laws went into effect, need not be reclaimed and in most cases have been left as they were when the mining was finished.

Various legal alternatives to reclamation have been employed, including converting the mined land to industrial sites or developing it as residential and commercial real estate. But the most difficult aspect of mine reclamation, reconstituting the groundwater system, remains a problem without a solution. The mining process inevitably disturbs or cuts off natural drainage patterns. The major aquifers in the area are located in the coal seam and some sandstone layers above it. The aquifers are disrupted indefinitely when they are intersected by the mining, draining precious water into the mine pits, contaminating it with acid runoff from the mines and spoil piles, and polluting it with silt and toxic metals. As the water tables in the area are lowered, both the quantity and quality of water downgrade are affected. In this semi-arid terrain, the barely adequate water supply is critical for agriculture and grazing. Even farmers and ranchers far from the mine have had problems with their wells being contaminated or drying up. Most of the town’s wells were severely contaminated and have been closed.

When I was working in Colstrip, from 1982-85, the third and fourth units of the power plant were being built and the town was experiencing a construction boom. The population, two-thirds of whom lived in mobile homes and trailers, had tripled in two years to nearly 8,000. This was the New West, a modern version of a rough frontier town, typical of the communities that spring up during the periodic booms that sweep through this region (the gold boom, the oil boom, the uranium boom). Along with the rapid influx of people, Colstrip had experienced dramatic increases in alcoholism, drug abuse, crime and a range of related social problems. After construction was completed, in 1985, the town began to more reasonably approximate the “carefully planned, award winning community of 5,000 residents” that the company promotional literature had advertised. Twenty-five years later, there have been layoffs at the mine and the plant, and the population has dropped to around 2,500.

Colstrip remains, strangely and disconcertingly, much like a 19th-century factory town. The power plant and stacks, with their clouds of steam and yellow-stained smoke, still tower over the town. Nearly all the residences are in direct line of sight of the plant, with its flashing lights, constant drone of turbines and cooling towers and intermittent, clearly audible sounds of loudspeakers broadcasting announcements and paging workers throughout the day and night. Dust from miles of exposed soil and coal piles works its way into everything — trailers, houses, stores and cars. Swiveling draglines are visible, sirens warn of explosive detonations and the reverberations of mine blasts shake the ground. Steel transmission towers and high-tension power lines dominate the sky, often directly above or in close proximity to houses and mobile homes. Surrounded on all sides by the power plant, industrial site, strip mines and waste ponds, the town of Colstrip is dwarfed by the industrial activity that spawned it.

Editors' Note

David T. Hanson’s photographs and essay “Notes on Colstrip,” along with the passage from Rick Bass’s “East of Billings,” are excerpted from Colstrip, Montana, published in 2010 by Taverner Press and distributed by D.A.P. A special collector’s edition of the book, including an original print, is available from Taverner Press.

David T. Hanson, “Colstrip, Montana,” Places Journal, July 2011. Accessed 10 Jun 2023. <>

If you would like to comment on this article, or anything else on Places Journal, visit our Facebook page or send us a message on Twitter.