The Public Service Commission was in the news two weeks ago relating to a shake-up in the PSC’s leadership. As the PSC’s new chair and vice chair, we think the change deserves a fuller explanation.
Put simply, this was a vote of no-confidence in the leadership for a breach of public trust.
The basic facts are as follows: Last month, the PSC designated two representatives—staff attorney Jim Paine and Commissioner Bill Gallagher (R-Helena)—to represent the commission as a party before a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) settlement conference in Washington, D.C. The conference concerned a sensitive matter of great importance to NorthWestern Energy ratepayers: Who should pay, and how much, for the $183 million Mill Creek gas plant recently built by the utility near Anaconda? Millions of dollars are at stake.
Commissioner Brad Molnar (R-Laurel) was not among those designated to represent the commission at these settlement talks. Nonetheless, he flew to Washington on taxpayer dollars without anyone but Gallagher’s knowledge. At Molnar’s request, Gallagher withheld this information from the other commissioners and staff.
It was particularly concerning that Molnar attended the FERC settlement conference since in the past he has had improper communication with a FERC commissioner and staff on an open docket, which resulted in a strongly worded written reprimand admonishing him to follow the procedures. His attendance at the settlement conference in March lowered the credibility of everyone there representing the commission.
We find this lack of transparency unacceptable and believe that most Montanans would agree with us. There is no entitlement to secrecy when public funds are being expended. It is also worth noting that this was just the most recent of many egregious transgressions by Molnar during his tenure on the PSC.
Obviously this last flare-up of controversy was disturbing to commissioners, the PSC staff, and the public. For that we apologize, but we believe it was necessary to temporarily sacrifice comfort in the name of open government.
We are committed to running the commission as an evidence-driven body, governed by decorum. The new leadership team includes a conservative chairman from one party who has a history of involvement in Republican politics in Montana and nationally. Our vice chair is a progressive Democrat from Missoula who served four terms in the Montana House of Representatives. It goes without saying that we’ll not always agree, but that will not stop us from getting along and guiding the PSC in a positive manner.
Throughout the decades, the PSC has opted to share leadership positions among both parties, regardless of which party held the majority. There is strong precedent and good reason for doing so. In fact, Molnar was the vice-chair under a Democratic majority. On another occasion, the four Democratic commissioners elected the lone Republican as chair because he was best qualified to lead. Every two years new commissioners are elected, which means the power shifts regularly as to which party holds the majority on the commission. Consistency is important in ratemaking, and it only makes sense to share the leadership responsibilities.
forward, we will work in a professional and accountable manner and stick to the issues at hand. Arguments that do not have a factual foundation will not be entertained at our weekly work sessions, which are streamed live online. The commission will strive to be transparent in every aspect of its work.
Travis Kavulla and Gail Gutsche
Montana Public Service Commission
Two news reports from Glacier Park caught my attention recently. First, the annual snowplow assault on the west side of Going to the Sun Road is under way. Second, the meltwater stonefly may become extinct, as its glacial habitat disappears. These stories are tied to one another. Assuming that carbon emissions contribute to global warming, you could say that the motorists enjoying the snowfields on their way to the pass are partially responsible for the disappearance of the scenery. Regardless, park officials and the tourism industry are determined to keep the traffic flowing.
Besides being a conduit for noise and pollution, the Sun Road is an eyesore, and an expensive one to maintain. Even if the road is an engineering masterpiece, as boosters claim, it was built with primitive technology, and to outdated standards. At this point, the road is barely clinging to the mountain. It’s flimsy and inadequate, and the patchwork efforts to keep it in place are futile. Reconstructing it to modern standards would destroy even more of the landscape, and make the Garden Wall resemble a rock quarry. Building a gondola car system to service Logan Pass would be kinder to the environment and more economical than this perpetual tinkering, which is driven more by nostalgia than good sense.
The park should follow their mandate of honoring and working with natural processes. Let the mountain reclaim the Sun Road, and use the remaining tread as a trail. It might buy some time for the glaciers, and the stonefly.
How can our Missoula students learn when the roof leaks? How can effective instruction take place when classrooms are overcrowded? I urge voters to vote “yes” for the four levies on the current ballot, and recognize the importance of their vote. The Building Reserve Levy is simply a “renewal” of an expiring levy, designed to ensure that our school buildings are safe and at code. These two levies, for the elementary and high school, include asbestos and lead paint removal and electrical, heating, and plumbing repairs. The General Fund Levies for elementary and high school will only compensate for the gap that the state legislature might leave. If they fully fund education, then the school district will not collect on this levy. Both are vital to the education of our Missoula children. Most importantly, vote.
Either we pay now or pay later. If we educate our children well they are significantly less likely to be an expensive burden to taxpayers in the future through the court and jail system. These students can make our future bright if we take care of them now. Please, vote “yes” on the levies.
Shannon O’Brien Dumke
At the Lincoln Community Council meeting on March 28, a robust discussion ensued regarding the U.S Forest Service and Department of Environmental Quality’s attempt to identify an alternative site for nearly one million cubic yards of contaminated waste from the Mike Horse Mine (see “Section 35,” March 24, 2011). This marked the first time residents in the upper Blackfoot Valley were able to publicly confront Lincoln District Ranger Amber Kamps about plans to place the repository in our neighborhood.
Everyone at the meeting spoke out against a repository on Section 35, including some council members, with the exception of Kamps.
Still, it sounds like the agencies are going to hold a public meeting with no other reasonable alternatives on the table for a repository than Horse Fly Gulch and Section 35. Amber Kamps flat told the audience they were not going to look outside the Blackfoot watershed. She suggested people contact Leslie Weldon, the regional forester based in Missoula, if they want to change that decision. So on some yet-to-be-determined date in May, they intend to present a detailed cost analysis of their alternatives with no real effort to find anything outside the Blackfoot watershed.
The agencies have said it would be three times as expensive to go over Rogers Pass even though the mine is within two miles of the top of the pass. Kamps could not provide a source for this estimate. Three truckers I know personally say they see little difference in fuel consumption whether hauling east or west over Rogers Pass.
For the first time in public Kamps acknowledged they do not have an agreement to buy from John Baucus and U.S. Sen. Max Baucus the development rights they own on Stimson property—which could effectively eliminate all of their alternatives outside of Paymaster and First Gulch. This would mean they have spent four years and nearly a quarter million dollars investigating Section 35 and Horse Fly Gulch for nothing, not to mention the $700,000 road they constructed last summer which obviously envisions the haul route going further down into the Blackfoot watershed.
Even though their only two current alternatives rest on Stimson property, Kamps denies the “Stimson Land Swap” had any bearing on the decision-making process.
The Lincoln Community Council is going to host a public meeting in May. I would like to encourage people to write to Regional Forester Leslie Weldon and ask that she expand the search area for a repository to sites outside of the Blackfoot watershed.
Friends of the Blackfoot
I read an interesting editorial in the Wall Street Journal written by Stephen Moore, a senior economics writer. Moore states that today in America there are nearly twice as many people working for the government than in all of manufacturing. He says this is an almost exact reversal of the situation in 1960, when there were almost twice the workers in manufacturing than collecting a paycheck from the government. And it gets worse: More Americans work for the government than work in construction, farming, fishing, forestry, manufacturing, mining, and utilities combined.
While in no way do I want to disparage government workers, I am convinced that our nation’s move away from creating new wealth from the production of natural resources and the associated value-added manufacturing of things we consume has not been good for our state or nation. Increasing the options for mineral production, forest products, energy, and agriculture are in our best interests and anything the legislature and governor can do to create jobs in those sectors are beneficial. Of course, there are vocal minorities who continue to advocate that the only thing that matters is doing nothing in terms of natural resource production. They have been banging that gong since the 1970s and it’s leading us backwards.
Moore closes by saying, “President Obama says we have to retool our economy to ‘win the future.’ The only way to do that is to grow the economy that makes things, not the sector that takes things.” I agree. We should encourage lawmakers to support legislation that will do anything to help create necessary jobs that make things.
Katharine E. Wikstrom
Montana Senate Bill 112—the bill sponsored by Sen. Greg Hinkle that would have allowed big game hunting with a spear—really wouldn’t have done that much to affect most Montanans. However, if you look at the bill as a metaphor that characterizes our current legislative session—decidedly retrogressive, nonsensical, and arrogant—it takes on new meaning.
Certainly House Bill 309, an attempt to privatize some of our waterways currently open to public access, qualifies as retrogressive. Many of our Republican representatives talk a good line about expanding public recreational access for sportsmen, but when it gets down to actually supporting the kind of access they have the power to influence…not so much.
Nullifying the Endangered Species Act would lead to the forfeit of millions of dollars in federal funding that supports road construction, maintenance, and many jobs. House Bill 321 had no chance of passing and overriding the governor’s veto, so what was the point? This kind of hubris wastes time and money—taxpayer money.
Republican elected officials such as my representative, Pat Ingraham, seem to have adopted quite the cavalier attitude this session regarding laws we voters have enacted through the citizen initiative process, including the use of tobacco settlement monies for prevention programs, the ban on open pit mines that utilize the cyanide heap-leach process, and access to medical marijuana for the gravely ill. It takes an incredibly arrogant attitude to reverse the will of the voters simultaneously on so many fronts.
Yes, it is highly likely that we will remember the majority running the show at the state capitol this year as the “spear chucking legislature of 2011.” Gov. Brian Schweitzer has also called this assembly the “Flat Earth Society,” a moniker they richly deserve. He will certainly need his red-hot veto branding iron when he rounds up all these misguided doggies.
Remember in 1998 when you voted to ban cyanide heap leach mining?
Remember how, in 2004, you voted against the mining industry's attempt to overturn the ban?
Did you think that Montanans had made their opposition to cyanide heap-leach mining clear? I did too, until I heard that Sen. Terry Murphy, R-Caldwell, sponsored a bill to bypass the majority of Montanans' wishes. Senate Bill 306 would allow new mines to simply ship their ore to other sites that still use the process (in 1998, some were grandfathered in), including the Golden Sunlight Mine, which is, funnily enough, located in Murphy's district, and, not so funny, has had 13 major cyanide leaks ac-cording to the Department of Environmental Quality and will have to treat its water for perpetuity.
I attended the hearing for SB 306 on Wednesday, March 23. Opponents outnumbered proponents three to one. The opponents included farmers and ranchers who have had their water poisoned from mining waste, people who work along rivers threatened by new mines if this bill passes (including one at the headwaters of Rock Creek), representatives from the tourism industry concerned over a decrease in tourism dollars should our landscape and waters be poisoned further, those concerned with the tendency of mining companies to leave the state while our citizens pay to clean up their messes (past cyanide processing mistakes at Zorman-Landusky and Beal Mountain cost Montanans hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup fees), and high school students worried about the health of their state. Despite the opposition, the House Natural Resource Committee passed the bill 10-5 on a party line vote. It then passed the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
As a last resort, please say no to cyanide heap leach mining again by writing or calling Gov. Schweitzer and urging him to veto this bill. Montana deserves better. Our water is more precious than gold.
It's hard to argue with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the grizzly bear population in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has rebounded in a huge way since the 1970s (see "Bearing it all," March 24, 2011). Its assessment seems to be based on a short-term perspective, though. Until a link is established connecting the Yellowstone grizzlies to the populations in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem and Canada, it seems to me the long-term prospects of Yellowstone's grizzly bears will always be in jeopardy.
Currently, the Yellowstone grizzly population—however healthy and numerous—lives on an unsustainable genetic island. Its habitat is cut off from the nearest grizzly population in the Scapegoat Wilderness by nearly 200 miles.
The Bitterroot ecosystem (consisting of both the Selway-Bitterroot and Frank Church-River of No Return wilderness areas) has historically supported a healthy grizzly population. Not only could the Bitterroot Mountains support up to 300 grizzlies, they offer the most practical habitat to provide the crucial genetic link for Yellowstone's grizzlies.
Until a population of grizzly bears resides in the Bitterroots, ensuring genetic diversity across the Northern Rockies, I just can't see the Yellow-stone grizzly bear population as viable in the long term.
Missoula County's small business owners have much to be thankful for with the commissioners' courageous and well-reasoned decision to join in a lawsuit against Imperial Oil's plan to haul oil sands modules through Montana.
As a fourth generation Montanan and the owner and operator of Dunrovin Ranch and Research, LLC in Lolo, I know as well as the next person that Montana needs to build its economy for the future. But a permanent megaload corridor at the expense of local jobs and taxpayers does nothing but move us backward.
Through my own economic and demographic research and my business experiences with Dunrovin Guest Ranch, it is abundantly clear that western Montana's unique quality of life is the main driver in our economy. It is what draws the creative people who turn ideas into economic realities and create jobs across diverse economic sectors.
Exxon and other out-of-state corporations' plans to highjack our highways would degrade our national reputation as an outdoor recreation and cultural mecca, spoil our county's ability to market itself, and hinder trucking commerce critical to our local timber industry and others.
Small tourism businesses, like mine, serve a vital role in an economic chain. Visitors who fall in love with Montana return again and again, and many end up bringing or creating businesses here to enable them to enjoy our unsurpassed lifestyle. This is the real job machine for this county and we all rely on the fact that Missoula has become a world-class destination.
Thanks to the Missoula County Commissioners for watching out for the backbone of our economy.
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