Ochenski: The price is right! 

“End of story” on Martz’s land deal with ARCO? Hardly.

Montanans are embarrassed and Governor Judy Martz is in “deep doo-doo” over a questionable land deal the Governor made with ARCO, the multinational corporation responsible for the Clark Fork Superfund cleanup. As the state’s highest-ranking elected official, Governor Martz has tremendous influence over what does or doesn’t get done on the cleanup —and the hundreds of millions of dollars that may or may not get spent to ameliorate the devastating damages from a century’s worth of mining and smelting in the Upper Clark Fork drainage. When it comes to dealing with ARCO, there can be little doubt that the Governor’s primary loyalty must be to Montana’s short and long-term interests. But guess what? Our Governor has been doing a little dealing with ARCO on the side and has managed to pick up 80 acres of ARCO’s land that just happens to adjoin her property. And surprise, surprise! She got it at a bargain price.

While it’s certainly nothing to be proud of, Montana is nonetheless home to the single largest Superfund site in the United States. Starting in and around Butte’s massive Berkeley Pit, the site follows the winding course of Silver Bow Creek downstream to the Clark Fork River, passing the Martz property near Rocker. For the next 80 miles, the entire Clark Fork and much of its surrounding flood plain are so polluted that they, too, are part of the Superfund site, which terminates at the ancient Milltown Dam. As the first major dam on the Clark Fork, this crumbling plug has backed up millions of tons of toxic metals that leach poisons into the groundwater above Missoula’s aquifer on a daily basis. In short, it’s a huge mess.

As one of the nation’s first Superfund sites, what to do about the horrendous pollution has been the focus of years of study, millions of dollars, and endless wrangling between citizens, government officials, and ARCO, the megacorporation that inherited the problems when it bought the Anaconda Company in the mid-70s. Although Superfund didn’t exist when ARCO bought the Anaconda properties, it was enacted by Congress shortly thereafter. Thanks to the new law, ARCO found itself responsible for the toxic nightmare and facing a potential billion-dollar cleanup. Since then, the company has spent millions on lawyers, land buys and studies as they try to minimize the damage. ARCO has also met with, bargained with, lobbied, and tried to influence every Governor and every Legislature for most of the last two decades.

Which brings us to Governor Martz. According to the Governor, she and her husband have coveted the 80 acres for more than 20 years. When the owner of the property died a few years back, he left the land to Montana Tech. The school, which has always had a very cozy relationship with large mining corporations, sold the land to ARCO in 1997 for $76,000. It makes sense that ARCO would want to own the property along Silver Bow Creek so it doesn’t have to deal with private landowners over cleanup decisions. But as an elected official and Racicot’s Lt. Governor, Martz should have maintained an arm’s-length relationship with the company even then. Instead, she pursued the purchase of the property with ARCO. Shortly after announcing that she would be the Republican candidate for governor, Martz and her husband got the land from ARCO at the bargain price of only $24,000... a 75 percent reduction from what ARCO paid for the same 80 acres only two years earlier. In spite of her position—and the scandal potential of doing a private deal with a regulated entity—Martz bought the property without an independent appraisal.

In her own defense, Governor Martz is characteristically blunt, saying: “I don’t know what ARCO paid for the land, and I don’t care. I don’t know what date they bought it, and I don’t care. We paid what they asked us. End of story.” But of course, it isn’t the end of the story. First and foremost, there is the implicit conflict of interest when an elected public official strikes a deal with a corporate entity regulated by the state—especially when that deal is to the benefit of the public official. It is especially disturbing when the public official is Montana’s Governor and the corporate entity in question is responsible for cleaning up the state’s largest environmental disaster. Because she blew off the independent assessment of the property’s value, no matter what the Governor says, questions will always persist about why Martz got such a bargain price.

Even more questionable will be the public’s ability to accept the Governor as an objective public decisionmaker acting on our behalf in the future—and no one doubts that there are many major decisions to be made before ARCO and the state of Montana are done with the business of the Clark Fork Superfund site. To put it in another perspective, how would folks feel about Governor Martz cutting a private land deal with W.R. Grace when she has yet to rule on Superfund status for Libby? And how do you think Martz will rule when ARCO asks to leave the Milltown Dam and its millions of tons of toxics in place?

By her own admission, Governor Martz and her husband coveted the lands in question for more than 20 years—and ARCO made their dreams come true. Yet, in the end, these dreams may very well turn into a nightmare for the Governor. Contrary to her wishes, it is not the end of the story. When further investigations delve deeper in the smelly affair, or when she has to make a tough decision on the cleanup of the Clark Fork, Governor Martz will undoubtedly rue the day she played “The Price Is Right” with ARCO.

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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