Montanans were shocked last week to discover that Pennsylvania Power and Light (PPL), the new out-of-state owners of the former Montana Power Company (MPC) hydroelectric dams, had without notice or opportunity for public input, decided to shut down all public access across its Missouri River dams. What reason did the company give to disrupt a century of citizen access to our own rivers and forests? Homeland security.
The way it used to work for most of the last century was pretty simple: MPC got to “rate base” (read: “charge us for”) everything—construction, maintenance, executive salaries and bonuses, even their lobbyists. On top of this, MPC got a guaranteed profit margin that ran about 10 percent. In return, we got cheap, reliable electricity and access to the recreational lands that surround the rivers and reservoirs on which the dams are located.
This “regulated monopoly” would have been considered a good deal for any corporation, but it wasn’t good enough for Bob Gannon, MPC’s hometown CEO whose excessive greed and terrifically bad judgment will follow him for the rest of his life…and even afterwards.
With Republicans dominating both chambers of the 1997 Legislature and Gov. Marc Racicot leading the charge, MPC’s phalanx of arm-bending, drinks-and-dinner buying lobbyists succeeded in pushing through the legislation, carried by Sen. Fred Thomas (R-Stevensville), to deregulate Montana’s electricity producers.
In what will go down as one of the greatest mistakes in the state’s history, these boneheads literally gave away some of the state’s most precious land, water and energy assets to the highest bidder when, only six months after the passage of the legislation, MPC put its utility holdings up for sale. When the dust settled, PPL came up with the dams, MPC transformed itself into a telecommunications firm and proceeded to go broke, and Marc Racicot took off for Washington D.C. to work for Enron and spread the gospel of deregulation.
Most readers will remember PPL’s vicious and largely inaccurate opposition to I-145, last summer’s initiative campaign that would have allowed Montanans to buy back the dams. After fleecing customers outrageously during the manufactured “electricity crisis” during the summer of 2000—and walking away with millions in price-gouge profits—the company went on the attack, spending profligately to defeat the citizen initiative.
The lines they used are well-known: PPL was “a good corporate citizen,” the dams were worth way more than the measly $500 million authorized by the initiative, and (this is the best one) Montanans would lose piles of tax money if the state, rather than this “good corporate citizen” owned the dams.
Now that the initiative is dead, the corporate worm (a wholly accurate description) has turned. First, PPL went for another electricity rate increase. Then they protested their taxes, saying the state over-valued the dams by hundreds of millions. Now, they have shut off public access to the recreational lands and waters that have traditionally been reached by walking over the river-spanning dams. Although PPL claims “homeland security” as its reason for closing off the public access, even their corporate spokesman admits there has been no vandalism of the hydro-power facilities.
Nor does PPL’s excuse hold up to on-site scrutiny. As anyone who has been to Hauser Dam knows, the public is allowed to park on the dam structure and the closed gate is held by a single, flimsy chain that would take about one second to sever with a pawn-shop bolt cutter. And that doesn’t even take into consideration the boats that could easily slip right up to the dam’s upper or lower face if anyone really wanted to do damage to the structure.
Hal Harper, a former speaker of the Montana House of Representatives and avid fly angler who regularly walks across both dams, puts it pretty straight: “They’re not locking out terrorists, they’re locking out the law-abiding citizens of Montana.”
As a legislator, the Helena Democrat was a leading opponent of the 1997 deregulation legislation and has warned ever since that selling the dams could endanger access to the “associated lands”—many of which have been used for public access, fishing, hunting, hiking and boating for more than a century. With approximately 36,000 acres of prime river and lakefront property at stake, the outcomes are hugely important—and completely unpredictable.
It is painfully obvious that PPL’s “homeland security” excuse is a dubious reason to close these lands to the public, since the measures wouldn’t deter even a marginally-committed terrorist. Why a terrorist would ever chose a dam in one of the least populated states in the nation for a target—where such an attack would do relatively minimal damage—is never even mentioned. In fact, nothing was mentioned to the state, the county or anyone else. The dams and their associated lands were simply “closed” by corporate order.
Gov. Martz remains invisible on this public lockout, but her lame Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks has decided to abandon the very people they work for—namely, the anglers, hunters, hikers and boaters who pay the fees and taxes that keep FWP’s paychecks from bouncing. Since we’re paying for it, one might suppose it wouldn’t be out of line to expect a little advocacy from Martz and her agency. But no. Instead, FWP Fishing Access Site Coordinator Alan Krauser says the agency’s “function” is merely “to inform the public on the status of the dams.”
To his credit, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brian Schweitzer has publicly requested PPL to reopen the longstanding public access. He could use some help, but is unlikely to get it from either the Martz or the Bush administration, who are hard at work pushing the privatization of state and national public resources for the benefit of corporate interests.
The question now is whether Montanans will simply roll over and give up—or whether they will fight the continuing corporate takeover of everything under Bush and Martz.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.