A Losing Game: Letting Corporate Polluters Off the Hook

It’s no secret that Montana has suffered long-term human health and environmental damages from a variety of industries including mining, smelting, manufacturing and processing. We have the largest Superfund site in the nation — the Upper Clark Fork Complex — which is nothing to brag about. From killing hundreds of Montanans with asbestosis in Libby’s W.R. Grace operations to wiping out 100 miles of the headwaters of the Columbia River, the evidence is incontrovertible that we have been and continue to be far too lax in holding corporations responsible for their pollution.

Unfortunately, our new Republican governor and administration are again short-changing pollution cleanup operations — and the outcome will ensure we get to live with and pay for these bad decisions for generations to come.

The poster child for the problem is Butte and Anaconda, where “consent decrees” were negotiated behind closed doors on how much it was going to cost to clean up the vast environmental destruction left by a century of mining and smelting.

Despite the fact that Montana’s Constitution guarantees us a right to a “clean and healthful environment,” neither citizens nor the press were allowed to participate or observe the “deals” that determined how much money ARCO-BP would have to pay for remediation of the problems the mega-corporation inherited when it purchased the Anaconda Co. in the mid-’70s.

It would be very naive to think that ARCO-BP didn’t hire the best attorneys it could find to argue for lower costs. And why not — if you spend a million bucks on attorneys to save hundreds of millions in cleanup costs, it works out just fine for the corporate bottom line.

But it doesn’t work out so fine for Montana’s citizens. After 40 years of supposedly “cleaning up” Butte and Anaconda, the Berkeley Pit is still the largest pool of highly toxic water on the planet, a giant mountain of black slag still welcomes people to Anaconda, the Montana Pole plant is still leaking dioxin and pentachlorophenol, and the Upper Clark Fork has some of the lowest trout numbers in decades — the opposite of what the cleanup was supposed to accomplish.

Moreover, the 50 billion gallons of toxic water in the pit will require “treatment in perpetuity” — which is a very long time indeed. “Treatment in perpetuity” is also required for the Golden Sunlight, Zortmann-Landusky and Basin mines, to name a few — and it’s painfully obvious Montanans are going to be trying to mitigate pollution impacts far into the future. And in every case, the “settlements” fall far short of meeting the eventual costs.

Comes now the question of what to do with Colstrip’s nine massive coal ash waste ponds that “have leaked roughly 200 million gallons of contaminated water into the ground every year for more than 30 years.” The extent of the enormous pollution by boron, sulfates, selenium and heavy metals is well-documented and has already resulted in Colstrip’s owners having to replace local domestic wells.

Yet, despite the evidence that Montana’s industrial pollution sites have been routinely underfunded in settlements, the Gianforte administration recently “settled” with Colstrip’s out-of-state owners to reduce their previous $285 million reclamation bond by a whopping $120 million.

It’s no surprise Montanans are up in arms at yet another dereliction of constitutional duty by our elected officials — and yet another “sweetheart deal” cut with corporate polluters behind closed doors. The old adage says “the once burnt child fears the fire” — but when it comes to letting corporate polluters off the hook cheap, it looks like Montanans are going to get burned yet again.

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