Fool us twice, shame on us! 

On Libby and dereg, Montanans won’t get fooled again

The old saying goes “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” What it means, of course, is that if someone scams you once, the perpetrator should be ashamed of their trickery and deceit. If they scam you twice—and you fall for it again—then the shame should be on you for not learning the first time. This is not bad advice for Montanans as it relates to a couple major decisions now pending. First, and most immediate, the decision as to whether or not the serious asbestos pollution in and around Libby will cause it to become a Superfund site—a decision to be made by Gov. Martz and the Environmental Protection Agency. The second, which is just getting off the ground, will be whether or not to repeal the 2001Legislature’s lame attempt at an energy policy—and this decision will be made by the people of Montana.

Libby: To be or not to be?

To make a long and very ugly story short, W.R. Grace is the company that owned and operated a now-defunct vermiculite mine and processing plant just outside of Libby, Montana. Their most commonly recognized product is Zonolite, a light, fluffy granular material produced by heating the vermiculite until it “popped” like corn. Zonolite has been widely used as both “pour-in” home insulation and a soil conditioner throughout Montana and the nation. Unfortunately, the vermiculite that Grace mined near Libby also contained deadly asbestos fibers, which, if inhaled or ingested, can lodge in the body and cause lingering illness and death.

While the mainstream Montana press was covering Gov. Marc Racicot reading to school kids, an out-of-state investigative reporter documented that hundreds of people were sick or had already died from asbestos-related diseases caused by Grace’s industrial activities. The list of villains is nearly endless. The EPA has supposedly found files from the mid-’80s that detailed health concerns at the Grace mill—but it did nothing. The Montana Department of Health and Environmental Sciences (precursor to the Department of Environmental Quality) likewise blew off its regulatory duties. Governor Racicot, in his capacity as attorney general and then two terms as governor, walked away from both the deadly problem and his home town of Libby. And of course, the chief villain, W.R. Grace, simply lied about the problems, the concentration of asbestos, and the potential for death and injury resulting from the mining, manufacturing, and use of its products.

Once the story hit print, the villains scrambled. The EPA sent in an emergency response team to assess the problem and control the worst sites. State DEQ officials, who were about to refund reclamation funds and pronounce the site clean, stopped mid-stride. W.R. Grace cranked up the spin, denied the problems, and tried to keep the EPA off their property. Racicot simply handed the hot potato to his successor, Gov. Judy Martz, and headed for Washington, D.C. to make some real money lobbying for the big energy conglomerates.

Now Martz has to make a decision on whether Libby should be a Superfund site. As the self-proclaimed “lap dog for industry,” this situation puts the governor in a tight spot. If the EPA is right, Libby’s problems exist primarily in “hot spots” where concentrations of asbestos-bearing materials are found. This, reasons Martz, means a Superfund designation for the entire town may slow the cleanup, cause unfounded health concerns in areas that are clean, and bring negative economic ramifications to the already-troubled area. W.R. Grace, on the other hand, would get the job done more quickly according to Martz, who says, “When you mandate private industry to do it, they’ll get it done.”

Meanwhile, back at the courthouse

As predicted [“When your deal goes down,” Missoula Independent, June 28-July 5, 2001], a Helena District Court judge recently overturned an Attorney General’s opinion and ruled that the Legislature’s main energy bill is properly the subject of a referendum to repeal it. Jim Goetz, the attorney for freshman state representatives Michelle Lee (D-Livingston) and Christopher Harris (D-Bozeman), successfully argued that the measure couldn’t be an appropriation bill, which can’t be repealed, because the utility tax intended to fund the bill was killed as part of a last-minute deal between Republican legislative leaders and the power companies. Hence, there is no appropriation since there is no funding. Lee called the decision “a good victory for the people of Montana” and said the referendum would “give every person the right to vote on what could be a 50 percent increase in their power bills.”

The decision hits Republicans with a double political whammy. First, they will have to try and convince Montanans that we shouldn’t sign the referendum petitions or vote to repeal the legislation because a 50 percent increase in our power bills will be good for us—a damn tough argument to sell. Second, it puts on hold any actions that may have used the hundreds of millions in bonding and spending authority in the bill—leaving them just about where they were when the legislative session started.

Which brings us to the old saying about getting fooled twice. Montanans have already been fooled by both W.R. Grace and the 2001 Legislature. Grace’s products, contrary to their assertions, were not safe—and many have died as a result. Governor Martz should remember that if she’s even thinking about putting Grace in charge of the cleanup. And the Legislature’s “solution” to astronomical electricity prices caused by deregulation turns out to be no solution at all. Instead, it was just a backroom political deal that saddles Montana’s citizens and businesses with at least a 50 percent increase in the price of electricity unless the bill is repealed. It’s tragic but true that we have been fooled once—and shame on those who pulled the wool over our eyes. But we have a rare second chance—both in the Libby cleanup decision and on the electricity referendum. Let’s not get fooled again.

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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