Workers, communities fear closing North Dakota's largest coal plant will destroy their way of life
The Minnesota-based Great River Energy announced this month it plans to shutter Coal Creek Station in North Dakota, which turns lignite from Falkirk Mine into electricity, in 2022.
UNDERWOOD, N.D. — For the past five years, fourth-generation lignite coal miner Grace Kerzmann could be found driving giant trucks, the ones with wheels roughly double her height, around Falkirk Mine near Underwood.
“I usually run a 789, and they haul 200 tons of dirt,” she said.
Her way of life that has spanned generations could soon come to an end for her and about 740 other coal workers. The Minnesota-based Great River Energy announced this month it plans to shutter Coal Creek Station, which turns lignite from Falkirk Mine into electricity, in 2022.
Unless another company buys North Dakota’s largest power plant, the mine and plant will halt work that began more than 50 years ago.
Minnesota has pledged it will be 100% free of carbon energy by 2050 in an effort to battle climate change.
Energy produced from coal has been unable to compete with low-priced wind and natural gas, said Mark Fagan, Great River Energy (GRE) vice president and chief corporate and member services officer. The decision to close Coal Creek “weighed very heavily on the hearts” of GRE leaders, Fagan said.
“We just couldn’t overcome those headwinds, even after the great things that the plant operators and employees had done to try to control costs and improve efficiencies,” he said Thursday in a phone interview.
The closure of the mine and plant would have a ripple effect on local communities and the state, said Jesse Flath, an agent for Western Frontier Insurance in Hazen, N.D. The thought of what may happen to businesses has overtaken most talk about the coronavirus.
“No one is talking about COVID right now,” he said. “They are talking about who is going to have a job in the next two or three years, how it is going to keep rolling to these other plants.”
Some in North Dakota’s coal country fear the shuttering of GRE’s Stanton Station in 2017 and the potential loss of Coal Creek signal an end to a way of life that dates back to the 1870s, when the first coal mines opened in the state. Others are optimistic these events are isolated only to plants owned by Minnesota companies.
The impacts of closing Coal Creek alone will be devastating to not only locals but the state as a whole, Kerzmann said. Coal has provided for generations of families, Underwood City Commission President Leon Weisenburger Jr. said.
“To take that away, these towns will suffer tremendously,” he said. “It’s going to be one of those old stories of these old coal mining towns that are going to be ghost towns.”
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‘We didn’t think it would come this fast’
Mic Johnson is a retired iron worker who worked in all the powerhouses in coal country. He is now the Economic Development Corp. president for Underwood, a small town of about 750 residents that sits next door to Falkirk Mine.
He estimated 30% of Underwood and 40% of Washburn, which is about 15 miles south of Underwood, work for GRE or Falkirk.
The plant closing would mean fewer children in schools and fewer people who can buy local products, which could prompt some businesses to close, Johnson said.
“We knew it was coming," he said. "We didn’t think it would come this fast.”
It’s possible workers could find jobs at other plants and mines, but not everyone, Johnson said.
Fagan noted there won’t be other coal jobs with GRE, though it plans to offer training and educational aid for those who want to seek wind and natural gas jobs within the company.
Employees impacted by the closing recently got a 20% increase in pay, Fagan said. They also will get a severance package that includes payment and continued medical benefits for a time.
“We spent a significant amount of time talking about how we were going to do our best to take care of our employees,” Fagan said.
‘Main street is coal street’
The news of the plant closing didn’t shock those with whom The Forum spoke for this story, including Hazen City Commission President Jerry Obenauer. A small portion of residents from the town of roughly 2,300 work at GRE or Falkirk, but others are employed by nearby plants and mines.
Hazen is about a 40-minute drive southwest from Coal Creek. Two-thirds of Hazen’s budget comes from coal severance taxes, Obenauer said.
Without coal, there would be less money to pay street crews, police and other city employees, he said.
“There are so many little things that would go away,” Obenauer said.
Underwood has roughly $5 million in outstanding bonds for residential developments and recreational and citywide improvements, while the city’s school has $1.5 million in debt, Weisenburger said. Those improvements were made because city leaders thought Coal Creek and Falkirk would continue operations and contribute to local taxes, he noted.
GRE plans to make annual voluntary payments to local governments for five years after the plant closes.
Coal also supports local business, said Antoinette Heier, executive director of the Hazen Chamber of Commerce and Convention Visitors' Bureau. Noting that “main street is coal street," Heier said GRE makes up 40% of a local supply company's income, she said.
“Without our coal, we wouldn’t have a main street,” she said. “A lot of our businesses are upset, scared.”
Heier said the coal plants and mines play a role in tourism by attracting schools for field trips. The coal industry keeps small communities viable, she added.
Losing that would change the surrounding area drastically, Obenauer said.
“I’m proud of our culture and history,” she said. “We don’t want to lose our community.”
Like the decline of steel or auto
Citing the coronavirus pandemic, GRE denied requests by The Forum to enter Coal Creek Station. It also said it would not allow interviews with employees, citing company policy.
The Forum reached out to several GRE employees, all of whom didn’t return messages or declined to comment.
There are statistics that show 50% of the local coal industry’s workers come from more than 30 miles away, Flath said, including Dickinson, Minot and Bismarck.
Bismarck Mayor Steve Bakken said 25% to 35% of the power plant employees live in the Bismarck-Mandan area. The coal industry has high-paying jobs with benefits, and it will be hard for those laid off to find employment that matches their skill sets and previous paychecks, he said.
“That is a big economic impact to our communities,” Bakken said.
One of those workers is Sarah Bryson, a Laborers’ International Union of North America employee from Mandan who helps clean equipment at Coal Creek as a contract worker.
“That’s a lot of what I do, and now I’m going to have to completely redirect where my career is going to have to go in the union and what I have to train in,” she said.
Bakken compared the threat to the coal industry to the decline of the steel and auto industry. Coal mining is one of the top industries for North Dakota, and everyone in the state will feel the impacts of Coal Creek's closing, he said.
“This is on that scale for us and for the state,” he said.
Kerzmann said it’s hard to imagine life without coal, GRE and Falkirk. She likely wouldn’t seek a job at another coal mine if Falkirk closes. Instead, she will stay at home with her children and raise more cattle.
She said she felt bad for younger families working at GRE and Falkirk. Some families have both parents employed by the companies, and the communities have tight-knit ties where relatives and friends have lived near each other for generations.
“Everybody in Minnesota is so excited for wind towers to produce jobs for them,” she said. “Do they realize how many families are going to go without a job here?”
If there is a silver lining, it’s that GRE gave a two-year notice so residents and communities could prepare, Obenauer said. It also gives the company time to find a buyer, Heier said, something she is optimistic about.
Gov. Doug Burgum spoke last week with President Donald Trump about supporting North Dakota's energy industry, Burgum's spokesman Mike Nowatzki said Friday in an email to The Forum. The governor is far from accepting that the Coal Creek and Falkirk Mine jobs cannot be saved, and he is "more determined than ever to find a path forward" for the power plant, Nowatzki said.
Fagan said the company is in talks with others about the potential of selling the company.
“Our concern is that whomever purchases this plant ... will be facing the same economic realities that GRE is that led us to ultimately make this very difficult decision,” he said.
Everyone with whom The Forum spoke with noted how much GRE took care of its employees and communities. The company has donated money, volunteer work and concrete to communities and local organizations.
“They always take care of us,” she said of GRE and Falkirk Mining.
Weisenburger, who is also a heavy machine operator at Freedom Mine near Beulah, N.D., believes his town will survive, but it will have to find ways to fill the gap of coal severance tax payments. He also said he worries about the fate of other plants.
“Cities were built on coal,” he said.