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Where Everything Grows

Lost in the Land of the Ugly Stepsister


Here is a name for it: the Ugly Stepsister Syndrome. In a state known for its beauty and grandeur, its last best place-ness, its Big Sky Country appeal, there exists a place where the citizens feel shortchanged, second-best, S.O.L. in the great economic scheme of things that is the New West. And they want to make up for lost time.

They are tired of witnessing the booms in neighboring cities, where the main streets boast swanky art galleries and four-star restaurants. They are tired of paying high power bills to out-of-state energy companies. They are just plain tired of being defensive about where they live and the way they use their resources.

Of course, it doesn’t help when the promised throngs of tourists do not show up en masse for the Lewis and Clark bicentennial, and the city loses more than $500,000. But it’s not surprising when the tourists don’t show up, either, because a massive no-show is just what many in Great Falls, Mont., expected would happen, all along. Because Great Falls has the Syndrome.

It’s odd; although Great Falls considers itself an Ugly Stepsister, there is much that is desirable about the city. Even its hydroelectrically inspired nickname, “the electric city,” speaks to a sense of hope and faith in the power of the future. Great Falls is also a place steeped in history, from Lewis and Clark and their famous month-long portage around the falls, to Charlie Russell and his art museum, to Giant Springs, which gushes 213,000,000 gallons of water a day. Great Falls recently received recognition from First Lady Laura Bush as a Preserve America city, the highest national award for historic preservation. This month, the American Lung Association named Great Falls air the fourth-cleanest in the nation. When you visit, it is easy to forget that Great Falls sits on one of the biggest missile storage sites in the world. But there is a sense of pride in the missiles, based on the fact that the local Air Force base is one of the biggest employers in the city. And pride can be attractive.

So it puzzles me that Great Falls chooses to be the Ugly Stepsister. But it does. In fact, it steps up and shouts to the rest of the state: The Ugly Step-sister is who we are! And you hoity-toity, latte-sipping city slickers can go to hell.

Current case in point: A proposed coal-fired electric power plant, now in the early stages of permitting, would be sited on a bank of the Missouri river downriver from the city. But it won’t be located on just any bank along the Mighty Mo; the plant happens to be planned for the exact place on the bank where the Lewis and Clark expedition scrambled up as it made its way around the falls in 1805. The land alongside this part of the river is much the same as it was when the expedition came through; you don’t even have to squint to imagine it as it was then. For some, the entire 4,000-mile-long trail has no more sacred spot. Here Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery were tested beyond all reasonable expectation, and then proceeded on.

And here is where the officials of the Southern Montana Electrical Co-op, representing five rural power co-ops and the city of Great Falls, want to build a coal-fired, 250-megawatt power plant, which would include a 400-foot-tall smokestack, wind turbines, rail lines, transmission lines, roads, lights, steam, noise and mile-long coal trains that would effectively render the Lewis and Clark portage site unrecognizable. American taxpayers are being asked to back a loan for 85 percent of the $720 million construction price (Congress is expected to consider approving the loan later this year), with the citizens of Great Falls backing the remaining portion.

Beyond SME and its co-ops, supporters of the new power plant include a majority of the three-member Great Falls City Commission, City Manager John Lawton and a local labor union. And so far, the backers seem to be getting their way, in part by billing the plant as having relatively small environmental impacts.

According to SME’s project overview, pollutants would be handled by an “integrated Emissions Control strategy (IECS) utilizing Montana low sulfur coal and Montana limestone with additional control technology which will capture more than 95 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions and more than 90 percent of nitrous oxide emissions. A minimum capture rate for mercury emissions of 80 percent or an emissions limit of 2.0 pounds per trillion BTUs will be achieved.”

The state Department of Environ-mental Quality granted Southern Montana Electric an air quality permit on May 11, 2007, even as the state acknowledged that long-term effects on air quality would be “minor to moderate.” The Rural Utility Service has issued its record of decision allowing the plant’s loan application to move forward. Now, efforts are under way to adjust the zoning of the site, to reduce likelihood of a lawsuit that might stop the construction of a coal-fired monstrosity on top of a natural and historical treasure. Given the City Commission’s apparent support for the plant, the zoning change seems to be a formality that will almost certainly occur in the next month or so. 

Actually, not everyone in Great Falls is afflicted with Ugly Stepsister Syndrome. There are opponents of the power plant, and they argue that alternative sites were never seriously considered, and the public was largely left in the dark throughout the process.

Options on the site were first purchased in the summer of 2004, but many interested parties did not hear of the potential damage to the landmark until June 2006. Since then, neighboring landowners, area physicians, and several environmental groups — including the Montana Environmental Information Center and Great Falls’ Citizens for Clean Energy, along with the Montana Preservation Alliance and the National Trust for Historic Preservation — have organized in opposition to the plant and its proposed location. The Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, a 3,000-member organization dedicated to preserving and protecting the 4,000-mile-long Lewis and Clark Trail, the National Park Service and American Rivers have also registered their opposition.

Meanwhile, two lawsuits have been filed appealing the air-quality permit. Two of the plaintiffs — The Montana Environmental Information Center and the Citizens for Clean Energy — argue that the state should be taking steps to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, even though under current law Montana does not regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant. (Strangely, the other plaintiff is SME, which contends it is suing to make certain what the CO2 protocol will be. “We just want to know the rules before we build a million-dollar facility,” general manager Tim Gregori told the Helena Independent Record.)

Still, citizens of Great Falls have been (and are being) told not to worry about the plant’s possible environmental impacts, the National Historic Land- mark designation attached to the site of the proposed power plant, or the viability of selling extra electricity outside of the state. Local leaders have instructed them not to mind that the plant’s technology is exactly the opposite of the “clean and green” energy sources Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer says the state needs. And they have been informed that they need not worry about a City Commission that did everything in its power to keep the power-plant project under the public radar until it was inadvertently discovered by a county preservationist in the public announcement section of the classifieds.

After all, doesn’t everyone in Great Falls know that global warming is a vast left-wing conspiracy? At least, everyone who isn’t a hoity-toity, latte-sipping city slicker?

Things are kind of cozy in Great Falls. Just about everyone is familiar with the major players. Just about everyone knows the proper procedures for permitting this kind of operation. But the prevailing attitude seems to be “Git her done,” with a side helping of “It’s a done deal, and we can argue the particulars later.”

After weeks of comment periods and extended comment periods, all parties await the decision of the Rural Utility Service. If it decides to issue the loan and the rezoning of the site occurs as expected, Southern Montana Electric will start construction within minutes, not days.

When I asked some longtime residents of Great Falls why anyone in his or her right mind would support the plant and its proposed location, they told me that I should understand that the residents of Great Falls are stuck in the 1950s. Also, they said, plant backers had an elaborate explanation designed to alarm residents: They were going to “lose power” in the near future; they needed to replace (rather than renegotiate) wholesale power contracts due to expire at the end of the decade. It’s a tactic that brings to mind the old snake-oil salesmen of the Wild West: “You may not know you have this affliction, but I will sell you the cure.”

The 200-year anniversary of the Lewis and Clark Expedition is over. But why are the leaders of Great Falls responding by cashing in on one of the few undeveloped sites left on the Lewis and Clark Trail? Why use a federal credit line to trash a National Historic Landmark — in the name of denying global warming and prolonging the imminent demise of unsustainable energy development?

You are worth saving, Great Falls, even if your own city officials think you’re such an Ugly Stepsister that you won’t object when they take advantage of your remaining appealing qualities to make you uglier. You don’t have to be the Little Wyoming of Montana. We like you just fine the way you are. So should you.

Stephenie Ambrose Tubbs is the co-author of The Lewis and Clark Companion: An Encyclopedic Guide to the Voyage of Discovery. She works for conservation and nonprofit organizations, including the American Prairie Foundation and the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. A collection of her essays on the expedition will be published by the University of Nebraska Press sometime next year.