Back in the care-free days of atomic innocence, when we as a species first figured out that specific isotopes of certain elements could be used to provide power for France, or might lead to missile silos in a wheat field outside of Great Falls, there were ceramic plates, bowls, cups and saucers marketed under the brand name Fiesta Ware. First manufactured in the late 1940s and pulled from department store shelves and bridal registries in the early ’60s, Fiesta Ware was notable not for its durability or the dash of color it added to a table setting, but for its half-life. Containing depleted uranium oxide, both the clay and the orange-red color that were Fiesta Ware’s trademark were dangerously radioactive.
Like black-and-white photos of trucks spraying crowded beaches with DDT or copper mines poisoning the Clark Fork with their tailings, that was before we knew any better, and now we have laws. Fiesta Ware, at least, is now made in such a way that is safe again. But there are still things like the 1999 Superfund Recycling Equity Act (SREA), which relaxed standards for recycling scrap metals. It would allow companies to convert millions of tons low-level radioactive material into all manner of consumer goods, from eyeglasses to eating utensils. SREA is worded in such a way that would exempt certain manufacturers and recyclers from Superfund liability, a loophole that congressional leaders claimed was unintentional, one that was promised to be closed before the end of this years’ congressional session by Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Senate Majority Leader, and Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) Senate Minority Leader, in an official exchange the two had on the Senate floor nearly a year ago.
Yet as the current congressional session comes to a close, it’s unlikely this Congress will revisit the SREA loophole. As the dust from the election settles, Congress will try to pass a host of appropriations bills before closing shop. These bills when signed into law provide funding for every federal and many state programs, including Congress itself. Since it’s imperative that these year-end bills be made law, it’s become an annual tradition for politicians who have pimped themselves out to the highest special interest or industry bidder to attach a rider—an unpopular or controversial measure that wouldn’t likely pass congressional muster were it to see the light of day—to appropriations bills. There are 300 or so riders Congress must deal with before closing the doors on this year’s session, at least 26 of which will compromise health and environmental protection, and many that will directly affect western Montanans if passed unchallenged. Two local watchdog groups, Women’s Voices for the Earth and MontPirg, are part of national efforts to rid appropriations bills of riders.
“One that’s already passed keeps the EPA from tightening standards on arsenic levels in water,” notes MontPirg spokesman Dave Ponder. “There’s another that’s being called the G.E. rider, because General Electric is responsible for more Superfund sites in the country than any other company. It would basically allow dangerous levels of PCBs to remain where they are without being cleaned up, which is what we have at Milltown Dam, and if you remember the ice floes of ’96 that threatened the dam, you know that’s not a good idea.”
Bryony Schwan of Women’s Voices for the Earth recently returned from Washington, D.C., where she confronted scientists and lobbyists from dioxin-producing industries at an EPA hearing. “We exposed these cigarette scientists as best we could,” Schwan says, claiming that the tobacco industry is now paying a price for 50 years of pseudo-scientific studies meant to obfuscate the connections between cigarettes and disease. “There are six members of this EPA review panel who have clear ties to dioxin-producing industries.”
The panel, officially titled the Dioxin Reassessment Review Committee, was met with national representatives from a consortium of environmental and consumer advocacy groups. “We made signs with the names of different polluting corporations on them, and whenever a panel member spoke, if he had ties to industry, we held up the sign of the company that was paying that guy’s salary,” says Schwan. “It was very effective.” MontPirg might be interested to know that the General Electric Foundation was bankrolling one such member of the panel, whose charge it was to review toxins like PCBs, the kind of dioxin found in alarming quantities in the sludge at the bottom of Milltown Dam.
Other riders that will likely supercede any rectification of the radioactive recycling bill include one to allow snowmobiles to remain in Yellowstone (Minority Speaker Daschle tacked that one on), even though the EPA recently found that noise and air pollution were harmful to bison and elk populations in the park.
The annual barrage of riders virtually guarantees that opportunities to fulfill meaningful promises, like keeping radioactive metals out of consumers’ kitchen cabinets, will be forsaken in favor of more pressing obligations to the General Electric Foundation or snowmobile manufacturers, and that a feisty contingent of citizens, including some Montanans, might someday take an ironic look back on the 106th Congress and be able to commemorate its accomplishments with an engraved replica of an old Fiesta Ware platter.