Montanans Oppose Catbox Cleanups of Superfund Sites

Image Source: NASA – Public Domain

Montanan’s 1972 Constitution is very direct about what it means when it comes to pollution.

All Montanans are guaranteed the “inalienable right” to “clean and healthful environment.”  Equally unambiguous is the mandate that “all lands disturbed by the taking of natural resources shall be reclaimed.”  And finally, “the state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.” 

For those who may be new to Montana, the reason those rights and responsibilities are in the Constitution can be attributed to one cause – The Anaconda Company and the Copper Kings who bought politicians, judges and newspapers to allow the vast destruction of Montana’s environment that left rivers running dead and red with pollution, mountainsides scoured of every tree, and enormous toxic waste deposits.

Never again, vowed the Constitutional delegates, would such destructive actions by any industry be allowed in Montana.  Yet, 52 years later, Montanans are once again wrestling with the toxic ghosts of the now-dead Anaconda Company in Superfund sites scattered across the state.

The federal Superfund law is straightforward in its approach to remediating industrial toxics — namely, “polluter pays.”  Moreover, to prevent industrial polluters from walking away from their liability by selling their properties, the law deems any successors “responsible parties” for cleanup costs.

For some reason however, neither the Environmental Protection Agency nor Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality seem capable of grasping and implementing the very straightforward mandates of Montana’s Constitution and the Superfund law.

Nowhere in law or the Constitution is there any provision that requires the EPA or state to shortchange cleanups to cut costs for the responsible parties.  Yet, citizens in both Butte and now, in Columbia Falls, find themselves challenging the EPA and state over “catbox cleanups” where the agencies allow leaving “waste in place” with a little dirt scraped over it instead of removing the toxics to safe storage facilities.

Butte was listed as a Superfund site 40 years ago, shortly after ARCO bought the Anaconda Company.  The EPA and state allowed ARCO to then flood the Berkeley Pit, which is now the largest body of highly toxic water on the planet.

Long-suffering Butte residents are now on their third generation of bureaucrats, endless studies and insufficient reclamation.  It’s so bad the collusion of regulatory agency bureaucrats with ARCO-BP reached such a level of frustration that the EPA recently replaced its managers on the site due to a massive loss of public trust from a decision to allow three times higher lead levels in Butte soils than in the nearby Anaconda smelter site.

Perhaps taking a lesson from Butte’s endless struggle for a real cleanup, the Flathead County Commission, joined by local citizens and organizations, are petitioning the EPA and state to reconsider the decision to leave 1.2 milion cubic yards of toxic waste from the defunct Columbia Falls aluminum smelter buried at the Superfund site.  According to the EPA, that waste contains “cyanide compounds that can leach into groundwater” and other highly toxic compounds which will require treatment “in perpetuity.”

The citizens of Montana, Butte, and Columbia Falls deserve better.  The Clark Fork and Flathead Rivers and Flathead Lake deserve better.  And the Montana Constitution mandates a full reclamation, not “waste in place” and pass it off to future generations.

As one very well-informed Montanan put it recently: “How many god—n times does Montana have to experience these companies raping the land, taking everything it’s got to give, then leaving us with the mess?”

Given our Constitution’s mandate that “all lands disturbed by the taking of natural resources shall be reclaimed,” that question deserves an honest answer — which hasn’t been forthcoming from the Environmental Protection Agency or Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality.

This first appeared in the Daily Montanan.

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