Fouling and fixing 

It’s time to prevent perpetual pollution

Paul Polzin, director of the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research and perpetual cheerleader for Montana’s resource extraction economy, was in Billings last week to hail the oil, gas and mining industries at a meeting of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists. In the meantime, Gov. Schweitzer was also in Billings hosting his Restoration Economy Forum, which highlighted the positive economic impact of cleaning up the environmental messes Polzin’s extraction industries leave behind. If this seemingly endless cycle of pollution and restoration strikes you as more than a little strange, rest easy, you’re not alone.

In Polzin’s economics what counts are the dollars that roll into the state’s economy, not the ugly aftermath. The mines are running, the oil companies are sucking coal bed methane out at a breakneck pace as energy prices soar, and by golly, don’t worry so much about what we’re leaving behind for the future. In the term so dearly loved by economists, all the pollution, health problems, and degradation in quality of life for Montanans are “externalized.” This means they are passed on to society at large rather than subtracted from the actual revenues produced by the resource extraction—which is where Schweitzer’s Restoration Economy Forum comes in.

In his welcome to forum participants, Schweitzer wrote: “In Montana, clean water, clean air, beautiful landscapes and access to our abundant public lands are a way of life. We share in the responsibility to care for our environment, including reclaiming and restoring damaged landscapes.” As an example, the governor pointed to the Clark Fork River cleanup, lauding the “investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in Montana’s economy, the creation of good-paying construction jobs, and the clean-up of past environmental damages.”

Having been intimately involved with the Clark Fork River cleanup since the Anaconda Smelter was designated Montana’s first Superfund site, I’ll gladly testify that the governor is right about the money that’s been dumped into the economy trying to reverse the damage from a century of unregulated mining and smelting. And as a lobbyist on numerous bills specifically targeted to restore damaged streams and fisheries, I know for a fact that restoration—at least in many instances—is cost effective and works.

That said, however, no matter what kind of economics you use or how much you cheer on the restoration economy, the reality is that it is always much cheaper to keep the land intact and healthy in the first place. Moreover, the sad truth is that restoration of some sites is cosmetic, at best.

For example, take the 8-inch layer of asbestos-contaminated vermiculite that was discovered last week by construction workers installing new water and sewer lines in Libby. According to the EPA, this site had been remediated by W.R. Grace, the company responsible for the horrific pollution that has killed at least 200 members of that community, and then recleaned by the EPA when contamination persisted.

Sen. Conrad Burns, who is certainly no friend to the environment, took serious umbrage at the discovery and blew up. “The sheer amount of material left behind and the proximity to the surface after this supposed cleanup is outrageous and inexcusable,” said Burns in a press statement. “The EPA has a responsibility to make sure that their efforts are effective. This recent discovery calls into question the integrity of the entire cleanup process for me and I want some answers immediately.”

What would be hilarious hypocrisy were it not so tragically true, is that while Burns and his Republican cohorts have been running Congress, the funding for Superfund cleanups, which came from a tax on extraction industries, was allowed to expire, effectively bankrupting the program. But of course our good senator didn’t include that little bit of background in his outrage.

And if finding an 8-inch layer of pollution in Libby sent Burns through the roof, it would probably be a good idea for him to stay away from the Opportunity area. In fact, if anyone in Opportunity could get away with a mere 8 inches of pollution they’d be jumping for joy.

In Opportunity the smelting pollution runs deep and wide. About 10 square miles of old tailings ponds and piles with their barren and acid-scarred soils surround the city and continue to leach arsenic and other heavy metals into the high water table—and more comes every day from the Milltown Dam cleanup. As for “proximity to the surface,” what’s passing for a cleanup in the Anaconda-Opportunity area is more like pulling a thin rug of metals-tolerant vegetation over a deep pile of deadly toxins. It isn’t cleaned up, it’s merely covered up—just like in Libby only a thousand times worse.

It should be noted, however, that Burns doesn’t have the market cornered on hypocrisy. While the governor is busy throwing a restoration forum, his agencies continue their historic kow-towing to industry’s often-specious demands. Case in point is the recent rejection by the Board of Environmental Review of a new administrative rule which would have required mines to have reclamation plans that leave their sites clean two years after operations cease.

Instead, and despite the governor’s good intentions for restoration, when Whitehall’s Golden Sunlight Mine shuts down, perpetual pollution of the Boulder and Jefferson Rivers will remain an equally perpetual societal burden. And that coal-bed methane production Polzin is touting? Well, some day poor old Eastern Montana will be dealing with the effects of the massive quantities of sodium-laced groundwater that was pumped out to get the gas—some externalized day in the future, that is.

Cleaning our nest is good—and Schweitzer should be commended for making it a priority since we have plenty of environmental damages to keep the restoration economy busy for decades. But at the same time, wouldn’t it be far wiser, much more economical, and considerably more prudent to not foul our nest so egregiously in the first place?

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at

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