Cause and effect 

After 100 years of abuse, we won’t get fooled again

Recently a group of labor unions, corporations, and local government officials decided to band together to oppose a court challenge to a new gas-fired merchant power plant proposed for the Butte area. From their rhetoric, you would think Montana has received only wine and roses from the companies that do business here. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth, and as ongoing experiences with mega-corporations ASARCO and ARCO have shown, there are deep historical reasons for all Montanans to be wary of corporate scams and further environmental destruction of the Big Sky state.

ARCO, the company legally responsible for the cleanup of Butte’s Berkeley Pit and the 120 miles of the Clark Fork River leading to the Milltown Dam, has a long history of denying the seriousness of mining and smelting pollution and of attempting to dodge the cleanup costs. Just a few short years back, more than 300 migrating snow geese landed on the Berkeley Pit. They never took off again because they were killed, to a goose, by the toxic brown sludge now filling the enormous hole left by the mining company. Sandy Stash, ARCO’s vice president for environmental remediation, stunned Montanans when she told reporters that she didn’t think the pit’s toxicity had anything to do with the deaths and said the only question was “why the geese picked here to die.”

The same Sandy Stash now wants Montanans to believe that ARCO’s great concern in the proposed Clark Fork cleanup is not the $100 million or more that it might cost, but how cleanup activities might impact landowners living in the polluted floodplain. Touching, really, that Ms. Stash should find such concern for the landowners given the history of the activities that created the pollution. In a great little book titled “Smoke Wars,” those Montanans who want to read the truth about corporate concern for landowners can find a treasure trove of reality that makes Stash’s concern for landowners sound about as reasonable as her comments on the snow geese.

The reality is grim. People, livestock, crops, and lands were sickened, poisoned, and killed for decades (most of a century, really) by ARCO’s forerunner, the Anaconda Company. Those who had no connection with the mining or smelting activities, but who felt the horrible impact of the savage and uncontrolled pollution fought back valiantly. But even with President Theodore Roosevelt and the federal government on their side, Montana’s citizens were crushed by the corporate powers and their lackeys in newspaper offices, the state Legislature, and behind judicial benches. Simply put, the landowners were run over so often it became ingrained local wisdom that “you can’t fight The Company.” Period.

In another quickly developing story of “corporate responsibility,” the federal government and the EPA are trying desperately to keep ASARCO from completing a series of financial manipulations that may lead to the company skipping out on hundreds of millions of dollars for environmental cleanups at sites nationwide. What’s happening is nothing new, either in the world of corporate finance or in Montana. As Montana’s Attorney General Mike McGrath said: “One of the allegations with W.R. Grace in Libby is that it fraudulently sold off or diversified a number of assets and what was left was a hollow shell, then they filed bankruptcy. We don’t want to see that happen again.” McGrath is right on the money, in more ways than one.

ASARCO was purchased by Grupo Mexico three years ago. As you might guess, Grupo Mexico is not an American corporation, and it would seem that the company is not much interested in paying for ASARCO’s toxic liabilities. Already a number of assets at the East Helena smelter have been sold at auction. While company spokesmen say those assets can easily be replaced if the smelter decides to resume operations, it’s looking more and more like a dump and run scam. Faced with nearly a billion dollars in total cleanup costs for ASARCO’s U.S. properties, Grupo Mexico is now shuffling valuable assets away from ASARCO and into a variety of Grupo Mexico subsidiaries in what the company calls a “restructuring” but what the EPA, the U.S. Justice Department, Attorney General McGrath, and others fear is really a preliminary to an ASARCO declaration of bankruptcy.

What both ASARCO and ARCO have in common is a deadly trail of toxic mining and smelting wastes that continue to foul Montana’s lands, air, and water, and continue to poison people, wildlife, and fish. They also have in common the hundreds of millions of dollars of legal responsibilities for cleaning up those wastes—hundreds of millions of dollars neither company wants to spend on profitless activities like cleaning up hazardous wastes.

It is interesting to note that Gov. Martz remains largely on the sidelines in these debates. While Attorney General McGrath is clearly out there fighting for Montana’s best interests, Martz is off in Oregon denigrating environmentalists and lap-dogging with President Bush in an attempt to expedite further logging of national forest lands under the rubric of “forest health.”

The last sentence of “Smoke Wars” pretty much sums it up: “[T]he denouement of the struggle to compel copper smelters to abate poisonous emissions ended where it had begun. In 1933, within the gloom of the fortress-like courthouse at Butte, Montana, the clerk of the district court wrote the final entry in the docket opposite the case of The United States of America vs. Anaconda Copper Mining Company: “Abandoned.”

Montanans, who were environmentally “abandoned” for most of a century, made sure the right to a clean and healthful environment was part of their new constitution in 1972. Rapacious corporate behavior was the cause.

Citizen vigilance and dedication to protecting the environment for future generations is the effect. No amount of corporate or local government rhetoric will change Montana’s grim history or toxic legacy. Montanans have been burned and rightfully fear the fire—and have every right to use the tools the Constitution put at our disposal to not get burned again.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.

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