Whose Side are You On? The People’s or the Polluters’?

Photograph Source: Darren Kirby – CC BY-SA 3.0

It’s well known that Republicans are “friendly” to corporations. But, as Montana’s top elected officials, Gov. Greg Gianforte and Attorney General Austin Knudsen, increasingly side with the polluters, Montana’s citizens are angered and more than justified to ask: Whose side are you on, the polluters or the people?

The latest example of our Republican officials siding with the polluters — and ignoring Montana’s Constitution — comes as the Montana Environmental Information Center sues Knudsen’s Department of Justice for communications it has had with Teck Coal, the Canadian company responsible for the selenium that is polluting Lake Kookanusa.

At first, Knudsen stonewalled the request – an ever more common tactic in the Republican “don’t ask, because we won’t tell” approach to governance. Then, the agency told the environmentalists they’d have to pay thousands of dollars to access the public records.

But the mandate of the Montana Constitution’s Right to Know provision couldn’t be more clear – and you don’t have to be an attorney to understand it.  “Right to know. No person shall be deprived of the right to examine documents or to observe the deliberations of all public bodies or agencies of state government and its subdivisions, except in cases in which the demand of individual privacy clearly exceeds the merits of public disclosure.”

There can be nothing in communications between Montana’s Attorney General and a foreign mining company that could possibly be considered “individual privacy.”  The “merits of public disclosure” however, are evident. With the very future of our public waters and fisheries at stake, you bet Montanans want know what our attorney general is discussing with a corporate polluter.

Instead of following the clear Constitutional mandate and honoring Montanans’ rights, Knudsen claims there is a “common interest privilege” between his office and the Canadian corporation and won’t release the documents. To put it bluntly, Knudsen has one “common interest” — and that’s to lawfully serve the people of Montana to protect our Constitutional right to a “clean and healthful environment.” Period.

Yet, as Knudsen stonewalls public disclosure, Gianforte’s administration goes even further by endorsing already failing “waste in place” remediation at Montana’s many toxic waste sites. And citizens are revolting.

The citizens of Columbia Falls are not willing to accept the Department of Environmental Quality signing off on leaving the toxic waste from the defunct aluminum smelter in their community.  As the Coalition for a Clean CFAC wrote: “Highly toxic waste buried at the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company (CFAC) Superfund site threatens our water, our health, our community, and our economy, if it is not removed. Yet the proposed ‘cleanup’ plan, written by the company’s consultants, would leave the toxic waste-in-place and restrict future economic redevelopment and human use. Forever. That’s not a plan that is good for anyone except CFAC.”

Likewise, the citizens of Deer Lodge want the toxic tailings gone from Arrow Stone, their city park on the banks of the Clark Fork River. The thin “waste in place” soil cover from 1999 has already deteriorated, once again exposing the community to the arsenic slickens now emerging.  As Powell County’s planning director said: “The community does not want a wastes-in-place remedy.  It’s not sufficient for the long-term.”

If you’re noticing a pattern here, that’s because the record is clear: Both Gianforte and Knudsen are increasingly siding with corporate polluters over the people of Montana, the very people they were elected to serve.  Which is why it’s no surprise that more and more Montanans aren’t willing to take fake cleanups and are asking: Whose side are you on – the polluters or the people?

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