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Q2 Rewind: Colstrip at a crossroads — the building of Units 3 and 4

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Today, the four smokestacks rising above the town of Colstrip are a recognizable fixture on the Eastern Montana landscape. But through a decade of planning and building the latter two generating stations, it was long unclear if Colstrip units 3 and 4 would ever be built.

Watch the video to see footage from the Q2 archives of Colstrip during the construction of units 3 and 4.

Colstrip Units 1 and 2 came online in 1975 and 1976, as this once-sleepy railroad town sprawled quickly to accommodate workers to and from the mine and the plant. Already at this time, dreams for two more units were in the works.

At the time, Montana Power Company applied for permits to build the newer units, hoping the plants would be online by 1978. It wasn't that easy, though.

Facing opposition from environmentalists, regulators, neighbors, and the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, the utility trudged through courts and administrative hoops for the opportunity to build it.

The first blow was when the state Public Service Commission deemed the plants were not needed to cover Montana's energy needs. Then, the EPA issued a near-fatal decision that the project would threaten the "pristine" air quality on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation. Meanwhile, a state judge found fault in the process to obtain the state environmental permits for the build.

The company would eventually overcome all these legal hurdles, with turbines rolling for the first time in Unit 3 in the fall of 1983.

But the utility still had to prove that Unit 3 was "used and useful" to Montanans if it wanted to peg its ratepayers with a controversial $96.4 million rate increase. That turned out to be an uphill battle, as energy demand was declining with a slumping economy. The utility also lost its biggest customer when the Anaconda Copper Mining Company shut down in 1983, and nuclear power from Washington state became an option.

But MPC pressed the message that Unit 3's kilo-watt hours were necessary.

"You need electricity when you need it," MPC President Paul Schmechel told Montanans in February of 1984. "And we can't issue a raincheck and invite you back to pick up some kilowatt-hours next week."

In July of that year, the Public Service Commission roundly rejected the proposed rate increase, much to the delight of the project's most vocal opponent, the Northern Plains Resource Council.

"We've been raising these issues for 10 years, about what's 'used and useful' and who should pay for these capital improvements that the power company wants to make. Finally somebody listened," said the NPRC member Bill Mackay at the time. "And I'm delighted. But it's not over."

He was right. It wasn't over. After battling it out in court, the Public Service Commission changed its mind, allowing for an $80 million rate increase, but mandated the increase be phased in over eight years.

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