On Sept. 7, four days prior to the horrific events of last week, a story about Montana made the front page of the Los Angeles Times. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a story about our beautiful state, its wonderful people, or the multitude of natural amenities of which we are so rightfully proud. No, the story was about the sick and dying residents of Libby and was a brutally frank assessment of the continuing asbestos tragedy:
“At the grocery store, you’re likely to run into one or two Libby residents with oxygen boosters slung over their shoulders, connected to plastic tubes running into their nose. The ones who can’t get to the store sit home next to their oxygen tanks. They struggle to get a breath of air in lungs that can’t expand anymore, they cough until they vomit, they peer from behind oxygen masks through eyes filled with fear. They wait for their children to show signs of the disease. Many already do.”
While this shocking true story was being read throughout the nation, the Environmental Protection Agency’s top administrator, Christie Todd Whitman, was touring the town and getting the horror stories straight from the mouths of the Libby residents. Whitman, herself a former governor, was accompanied on the tour by virtually all of Montana’s top elected officials. Governor Martz, Senators Baucus and Burns, and Congressman Denny Rehberg were all there—hearing the same stories, seeing the oxygen tubes running up the noses of the wheezing, gasping, choking, slowly-dying residents.
At the end of the day, the ever-present question, “What are you gonna do about it?” had to be answered. Whitman said the problem was a “top priority” for the EPA. She wants the area listed as a Superfund site, she assured home and business owners that they would not be responsible for cleanup costs, and said the EPA was not going to leave until the job is done right. Going a step beyond merely cleaning up the asbestos-laden tailings and vermiculite piles scattered throughout the town, Whitman told residents that the EPA was also looking for ways to remove the deadly vermiculite insulation from Libby’s homes.
For long-suffering residents, hundreds of whom are sick and/or have lost family members to asbestos-caused illnesses, this was good news. Libby’s mayor and the entire Lincoln County Commission support a Superfund listing. The Community Advisory Group urged Governor Martz to use a so-called “silver bullet” Superfund option, a one-time, one-site per state, fast-track cleanup. Local resident Eva Thompson, who is suffering from asbestos-caused illness, told the officials she was “a widow and an orphan due to asbestos,” but expressed hope that a quick and thorough cleanup by the EPA would save Libby’s children. Since then, the events taking place in New York and Washington seem to have overwhelmed what’s going on in Libby. Our political leaders have declared, “We are at war,” Congress has appropriated billions of dollars, all branches of the military have been placed on high alert status and tens of thousands of national guard reservists are being called to active duty. The war drums beat louder day by day, with most of the discussion centering on measures necessary to protect America’s citizens.
Which brings us back to Libby. More than a thousand Libby residents were found to show asbestos health effects during recent screenings. Hundreds more have already died from asbestos-related diseases. These people, too, are innocent victims. These people, too, deserve immediate attention. Those not yet afflicted, and especially the children, deserve whatever protection their government can offer.
Yet, in spite of the overwhelming scientific evidence, an extensive review and recommendation from Attorney General Mike McGrath, the support of the local elected officials, and the promises of the EPA to move quickly and do a good job, Montana’s Governor Martz so far remains incapable of making a decision to support listing Libby as a Superfund site. Further, Martz said she doesn’t think Montana can afford the $5 million that may be required as the state’s matching contribution to an EPA cleanup, saying “We do not know where the money will come from.”
While it may be true that Governor Martz doesn’t know “where the money will come from,” that’s not to say the money isn’t there. Those with a rudimentary understanding of Montana’s government structure and finances know about the Resource Indemnity Trust Fund (RIT). The drafters of our Constitution were fully aware of the brutal treatment that the state has received from the resource extraction industries—mining in particular—and set up the RIT, an inviolate trust that pinches 1/2 of 1 percent tax on mineral extraction (Article IX, Sec. 2 & 3). Thirty years later, that trust has accumulated nearly $100 million—the point at which it is capped. The Trust generates interest earnings that amount to millions every year.
With very little effort, that interest can be used to pay off any debt that a Libby cleanup might entail. It is exactly the purpose for which the Trust was established and every session the legislature divvies up the millions in interest to cap old oil wells, clean up tailings, and repair streams damaged by mining. If the Governor had done her homework, she would also know that once the $100 million cap is reached, the revenue stream from the RIT tax would also be available to use for Libby. Simply put, the money is there, has always been there, and will always be there to take care of the sick and dying Montanans who were poisoned by the now-bankrupt W.R.Grace company.
No one knows what actions the federal government will take in the aftermath of the terrorist bombings on the East Coast. But here in Montana, if our state government wants to protect our citizens, Libby would be a good place to start.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.