More than a quarter of a century has passed since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated the Upper Clark Fork River as the largest Superfund site in the nation, and cleanup activities continue to slowly but surely remediate the mining-caused pollution. There's no end in sight to the work that needs to be done on the river and its adjoining lands, but now Gov. Schweitzer and state Sen. Steve Gallus think spending natural resource damage money to move the Montana Historical Society Museum to Butte is a "win-win" idea. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The year is 1977 and U.S. Senator Lee Metcalf is passing historic legislation to preserve the wilderness characteristics of tens of thousands of acres of Montana as Wilderness Study Areas. Meanwhile, the Atlantic Richfield Company, ARCO, pays $700,000,000 to acquire the mines, lands and smelter of the Anaconda Company in what has been called one of the worst corporate decisions of the century. The price of copper drops drastically—and ARCO closes the Butte mines. Shortly thereafter, they shut down the Anaconda Smelter, throwing thousands of Montanans out of work and dealing a devastating blow to the economies of Butte and Anaconda.
In the meantime, the U.S. Congress has passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, better known as Superfund. President Jimmy Carter signs the bill into law as one of the last actions of his presidency and all across the nation major polluters are now held liable for their degradation and the threats it poses to human health and the environment. ARCO's bad investment turns much worse as the company inherits the liability to clean up Butte and Anaconda and 100 miles of river down to Milltown, where thousands of tons of toxic sediment have stacked up behind a crumbling, century-old dam.
The fledgling Superfund program has the bad fortune to be implemented by none other than President Ronald Reagan, easily one of the worst, if not the worst, environmental presidents of the 20th century. Finding a friend in the White House, ARCO tries desperately to sidestep the Superfund liability. In the meantime, following in the footsteps of the Anaconda Company, the corporation throws dollars and lobbyists at the Montana Legislature, hoping to influence state decisions on the Clark Fork and, ultimately, reduce the costs of the cleanup for which it is now legally accountable.
In a classic example of old-style, corporate strong-arm politics, ARCO almost succeeds in derailing the state's option of pursuing court action to collect for damages to the natural resources of the area. But just before the deadline to do so expires in 1983, Gov. Ted Schwinden authorizes the Department of Justice (DOJ) to file a natural resources damage suit against the company.
Unlike the costs for the cleanup of Butte, Anaconda, Milltown Dam and the Clark Fork River, funds resulting from natural resource damage suits can be used to repair, restore or replace natural resource assets of the area that have been damaged or destroyed by the Anaconda Company's disastrous century of virtually unregulated mining and smelting activities.
For 25 years the state does battle with the fearsome legal power of ARCO. In the meantime, ARCO becomes a subsidiary of the international giant, British Petroleum, adding even more gun power to the corporate side of the equation. But the damages are real, as the continuing research undeniably finds, the state lawyers are determined, and the Legislature continues to appropriate money for the court battle. Settlements in 1999, 2005 and 2008 bring the state hundreds of millions of dollars in damages for, according to the DOJ, "injuries to the water, soils, fish and wildlife in the basin [and] the public's lost use and enjoyment of these injured resources."
Last week, Sen. Gallus and Gov. Schweitzer announced that they think it's a great idea to rob those funds to build a new museum in Butte with Schweitzer saying: "Clearly it seems like a win-win situation and construction could begin soon."
Helena's legislators and the chair of the Lewis & Clark County Commission immediately denounced the move and questioned the legality of using resource damage funds on such a non-natural resource related project. Helena Mayor Jim Smith forcefully declared: "I do not think that the relocation of the state Historical Society ought to be purely the result of a 'Butte deal' between Sen. Gallus and Gov. Schweitzer." He added: "We have applied the principles of Wal-Mart capitalism to our public institutions, including, apparently, our sacred history. Personally, I find that disgraceful."
Disgraceful indeed. The damages from mine and smelter pollution to the Upper Clark Fork are as severe as anywhere in the nation and there is literally no end to the mitigation necessary to restore the area to some semblance of working natural ecosystems. To do so, the state set up a grant program and advisory council and, according to the DOJ: "Montana's governors have approved 91 projects that will help make the basin's natural resources healthy and provide opportunities for the public to enjoy these resources. In addition to funding grant projects, the state has used settlement monies for special projects such as restoration planning for the Milltown Dam and the Silver Bow Creek watershed."
But here's the rub: In the end, it is the governor who makes the final decisions on funding grant projects. If Schweitzer thinks spending natural resource money on a new Butte museum is a wonderful idea, what's to stop other governors in the future from spending it on any number of pork barrel projects like a tram up to Our Lady of the Rockies—and yes, that has been suggested.
The lesson here is simple: A generation of Montanans has fought long and hard to win the settlements to restore the natural resources of the Upper Clark Fork. No governor should denigrate those efforts by squandering the scarce funds on non-natural resource related projects.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.