In 1989, newly elected Montana Gov. Stan Stephens was in Livingston to tour Burlington Northern's rail yard and locomotive shop before meeting with members of the public and the town council. The issue? Possible pollution of Livingston's groundwater by toxic wastes spilled or discarded by Burlington Northern.
This week, a trial opened in Great Falls, where more than a hundred residents are seeking remediation and remuneration from the pollution that continues to spread beneath their community as Burlington Northern fights a cleanup.
Gov. Stephens was ill-equipped to understand the implications of what he was about to see that day in 1989. But in the group that accompanied him, there was no lack of those who did. Environmental cleanup advocates included Rep. Bob Raney, who was born and raised in Livingston and spent 25 years as a conductor on the same line that had polluted the community he represented in the state legislature. Jim Jensen, the executive director of the Montana Environmental Information Center, was also there.
There were also state bureaucrats, consultants hired by Burlington Northern and Burlington Northern's vice president of communications and public affairs. And there were reporters, clicking away with 35mm film cameras, and a couple of guys there to videotape the whole thing for posterityWarren McGee, Livingston's famed historical railroad photographer, and me.
The tour began in the rail yard, as the bureaucrats and consultants tried to explain what Gov. Stephens was looking at. There was a giant unlined pit that had been dug and then filled with thousands of gallons of petroleum distillates such as the solvents used to clean locomotive parts. That it was leaching through to groundwater seemed obvious, since this was Livingston, which is on the banks of the Yellowstone River and squarely within the porous alluvial gravels that the massive river has deposited throughout geologic time.
Do we know how many gallons of waste are in the groundwater? asked Stephens.
No, that's hard to estimate, he was told. It's still being studied.
Do we know what's in it? asked the governor.
Not really, he was told, they're complex mixtures, some may have degraded.
The highlight of the tour came when the group gathered around a test well where a clean white pipe was lowered into Livingston's groundwater. And then up it came, the pipe completely covered in thick black goo that went well up the white rope, too.
The entourage went silent. Gov. Stephens seemed stunned. No amount of obfuscation by Burlington Northern or state bureaucrats could obscure this.
That night, in a town council meeting and discussions with residents, details emerged about petroleum and solvent fumes penetrating basements, bad water in wells and concerns about the effects the pollution would have on the community. But by then, the gooey pipe was gone from sight, and the promises made by politicians were never kept.
The history of Livingston's contamination reads like a primer on how to avoid cleanup costs and liability by hiring politically connected law firms and lobbyists to delay accruing cleanup costs. Apparently, it's cheaper to hire lawyers for decades than it is to address the reality that some pollution, such as what Burlington Northern left in Livingston's groundwater, may never be cleaned up. The state now says the plume of contaminants has migrated through the groundwater and penetrated the bedrock below.
Nearly a quarter century later, this saga goes to a courtroom where a jury will finally hear the citizens' side of the story as they seek redress for the damages done to them, their property and their futures. Burlington Northern is expected to argue that it handled materials with reasonable care, in conformance with standard industry practices and in accordance with applicable law.
Perhaps when the jury sees that ancient video of the black pipe coming out of the test well, it will understand that it is always much better to avoid pollution than to try and clean it up. And maybe, just maybe, justice will finally be on its way to long-suffering residents of Livingston.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.