HELENA, Mont. – The U.S. government awarded $4.6 million in aid on Tuesday to retrain hundreds of Montana coal workers, many of whom will soon be out of jobs because of a partial closure of the coal-fired Colstrip power plant.
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The money was allocated after President Donald Trump declared earlier this year that the "war on coal" was over and signed an executive order rolling back Obama-era regulations.
Still, the coal industry and its workers remain in upheaval because of slumping coal markets and mounting pressure to develop cleaner forms of energy.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock's office said $2 million of the money for retraining will be immediately available to begin workforce retraining. He said the funds are critical for the futures of the workers.
"Workers in the coal industry have been left to fend for themselves, so this is very important," said Al Ekblad of the AFL-CIO, which represents hundreds of coal workers. "We need to be able to retrain them for good quality jobs to raise their families."
The aid arrived months after a failed attempt by some state legislators to require two owners of the power plant to compensate Colstrip and surrounding communities for economic losses when two of its four units shut down by 2022.
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The closure is part of an agreement between environmentalists and plant co-owners Talen Energy and Puget Sound Energy of Washington state.
While the focus is on Colstrip, the money from the U.S. Department of Labor could benefit 1,700 coal industry workers across 21 counties in eastern Montana, the governor's office said. The money will be disbursed to training facilities at community colleges, tribal colleges, labor unions and other community groups.
The funding is due in part to a collaboration launched a year ago between unions and the environmental community.
Union officials want to retain jobs, but some acknowledged that political and market forces are putting pressure on their members to prepare for changes in the energy sector.
Environmental groups have sought less reliance on fossil fuels such as coal and pushed for workforce development in renewable power and other cleaner forms of energy production.
Part of the money will go toward building a workforce for reclamation projects, including cleaning up ash ponds near the Colstrip power plant and reclaiming coal mines.
"Obviously it will take many years to reclaim the land and reclaim the water, and these kinds of jobs will be there for a long time," said Mark Fix, chair of the coal task force for the Northern Plains Resource Council.
The money will provide a much-needed infusion of cash into coal-reliant communities, said state Sen. Duane Ankney, a Republican and retired coal mine superintendent who represents Colstrip.
"It's a good thing to prepare now, instead of reacting later," he said. "It will help prepare for the event when there will be significant layoffs."