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Utility officials tour Montana mine that provides coal for Willmar, Minn., power plant

WILLMAR -- Two Willmar Municipal Utilities officials last week toured the Montana open pit mine that provides coal for the city's power plant.

General Manager Wesley Hompe and Power Production Supervisor Jon Folkedahl joined representatives of five other odd-lot coal purchasers from the Absaloka Mine, operated by Westmoreland Coal Company of Denver, Colo., and located near Hardin, Mont.

Willmar Utilities, along with three schools in North Dakota, a cement plant and an ethanol plant, buy what's called odd lots -- small numbers of coal-filled rail cars.

Most coal traveling through Willmar is transported with 110-car trains. An odd-lot train may have up to 70 cars combined for all six customers, with Willmar the farthest east on the line. The unloaded cars are returned to the mine for more coal.

Hompe and Folkedahl reported on the tour to the Municipal Utilities Commission at the Monday meeting. They and other customers were invited by Westmoreland to meet one another and discuss and solve common shipment problems, Hompe said.

For the last number of years, coal delivery and unloading cars has not always been an easy, straightforward task, Hompe said. One winter, Willmar received a shipment of frozen, unusable coal.

"We've had problems, sometimes on a daily basis. We're trying to iron it out, get a good agreement or be in contact with others in the train, make it easier for us to get the coal when we need it, the size we need it and hopefully in the quantity we need it,'' he said.

"It was a very fruitful tour,'' Hompe said.

Folkedahl said there will be an understanding that Willmar will work with the other odd-lot coal customers to make delivery more consistent.

"The next step is to work with the (Burlington Northern Santa Fe) to try to get the same level of cooperation from them,'' he said.

Hompe said Willmar tries to buy from 10 to 20 cars at a time, depending on needs. If the utility is stockpiling coal for the winter, more cars will be purchased, he said.

Westmoreland leases coal reserves from the Crow Tribe of Indians, according to the company's website. Hompe said Absaloka means crow in the Crow language, and 60 percent of the people at the mine are of the Crow Tribe.

In related business, Hompe said the utility is working to finish designing a new coal unloading system. He said the utility might need to address some Environmental Protection Agency issues before finishing the project.

During the power supply report, Hompe said the utility began taking delivery in August for power from WPPI Energy of Sun Prairie, Wis.

Under a 20-year agreement, WPPI is providing 5.5 megawatts of power as Willmar replaces a 30-megawatt agreement with Great River Energy that's set to expire in 2016 with a number of smaller contracts from diverse resources.

In other business, Commission Vice President Steve Salzer welcomed Jeff Nagel, a local architect who was appointed by Mayor Frank Yanish and confirmed by the City Council as a replacement for David Becker who resigned. Nagel said he is looking forward to learning more about the utilities and being as active as possible.

The commission honored longtime accounting supervisor Tess Stoffel, who is retiring. She was born and raised in the Philippines, married Tom Stoffel and moved to Willmar where she joined the utility on Dec. 19, 1973, as accounting clerk. She was later named accountant and was appointed to her present post in 1992.

Commissioner Matt Schrupp said Stoffel was a valuable source for a wide range of information. Schrupp said Stoffel postponed her retirement to assist the commission during activities the past year.

Stoffel thanked the commissioners and said they were an inspiration to her.

She admired the commissioners for their dedication to the community and said the utility would not be running as smoothly without them, as well as the good staff.

In other business, Salzer acknowledged that City Attorney Robert Scott was attending the meeting via telephone from his office in St. Paul, saving travel time expenses. The commission decided Sept. 24 that Scott would attend in person only if necessary.

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150