The Damage Done

Being home to the largest Superfund site in the nation, Montanans know that the cost of trying to clean up an environment damaged by resource extraction is vastly higher than the cost of preventing the damage in the first place. We also know that after spending hundreds of millions of dollars and decades of effort, “remediation” of functioning ecosystems is never fully restored. It’s a lesson our lawmakers should heed – and remember that Donald Trump’s regulatory rollbacks and the damage done – helped make him a one-term president.

For the last four years the Trump administration has been on a tear – literally, that is, tearing up the environmental regulations put in place over half a century after the nation realized we would not survive a future where our rivers caught on fire, subdivisions were built on buried toxic waste sites, and tens of thousands of industrial chemicals were showing up in air, water, land, wildlife, fish and ultimately, our children.

Make no mistake, it was a battle royal to pass and enact, among a host of other foundational environmental laws, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and create the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to oversee the implementation of the regulations and use Superfund to address the worst of the nation’s environmental disasters. Industry’s profiteers fought tooth and nail against being held responsible for their actions, but science and a sense that the present owed a livable environment to the future prevailed.

Trump’s naked assault on environmental protection was nothing short of a return to the days of the far past when what was left behind held no concern in the face of “get it while you can” predatory capitalism. And now, the Biden administration will face the daunting task of restoring sanity – and regulation of industrial operations – to stop the Trump-caused destruction.

Like his predecessors, Biden will face the high-pitched whine that restoring regulations will “cripple industry” – only this time they also get to claim that trying to protect our precious environmental legacy will somehow negatively impact the limping economic recovery. Both claims have long been proven to be false.

In Montana, where Republicans have swept the statewide offices and legislative majorities, the false narrative that regulations are incompatible with a healthy economy is likely to receive broad play. It is at our peril that these protestations should ever receive even a shred of credibility or acceptance.

But here’s the rub for those reckless Republicans who would turn the Big Sky State into the Pig Sty State – federal laws and regulations take precedence over state laws and regulations when states fail to meet certain minimum standards. In other words, no matter what a runaway Republican governor and legislature try to do in the way of environmental degradation, if they go too far, the federal government under the Biden administration is certain to step in. And rest assured, there are still plenty of environmental advocates who will go without hesitation to federal courts to stop wanton destruction of our planet’s critical life support systems.

It’s understandable that Republicans think they received a “mandate” from Montana’s voters in the last election. But there were no environmental initiatives on the ballot from which to judge public sentiment and Montanans did not vote for unrestrained rape and scrape. We are still struggling to repair the “unintended consequences” of the past – and the costs only continue to mount. If, for some reason, Montana’s Republicans think they have been given leave to emulate Trump’s anti-environmental record, they’d best remember that, in the end, it cost him the presidency.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.