Like stink on a skunk 

Schweitzer’s DEQ glosses over a burning issue

Near the end of the 2005 Legislature, Gov. Brian Schweitzer met with legislators and citizens from the Bozeman area who belong to a long-standing group named Montanans Against Toxic Burning (MATB). The men and women in the room that day came to the Capitol to voice their concerns over what was going into—and coming out of—the Holcim cement plant at Trident. After years of being ignored by the Republican administrations of Governors Stephens, Racicot and Martz, the group could hardly believe their ears when Schweitzer told them, in front of Richard Opper, his newly appointed director of the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), that his administration would “be all over this, like stink on a skunk.” One of the women present, who has spent long years trying to protect her valley from toxic fallout, was moved to tears by Schweitzer’s promise.

Finally, it seemed, yet another remnant of Montana’s century-long smokestack era was going to get the scientific scrutiny and regulatory rigor required to ensure that its industrial process was not making money for its owners at the expense of the public’s health. After the horrendous human health toll and ongoing clean-up costs of the asbestos poisoning at Libby, massive pollution from the Anaconda Smelter and Butte mining activities, and groundwater pollution from still-leaking cyanide heap-leach mines scattered across the state, it appeared that, indeed, as Gov. Schweitzer promised, “a new day” had dawned in Montana.

Now, several months down the line from that meeting, if the words and actions of the “new” DEQ are any indication, the “new day” in Montana seems all too much like the bad old days of yesteryear.

First came the discovery that Holcim, a Swiss-owned company and one of the world’s largest cement producers, has been burning slag from ASARCO’s defunct lead smelter in East Helena. The ASARCO smelter is now a Superfund site due to the toxicity of its emissions, its toxic groundwater pollution and the massive quantities of on-site toxic waste.

Nonetheless, according to Holcim officials, the smelter slag contains significant quantities of iron, which is a necessary component in cement production. That it also contains a host of toxics and heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury, cadmium, chromium, cobalt and lead was brushed aside as a non-concern since, again according to Holcim officials, the slag wasn’t actually being “burned,” merely heated in the giant rotary kiln and incorporated into the cement itself. In fact, Holcim officials chided those with environmental concerns, saying Montanans should be glad the company is “recycling” the toxic slag.

In July, shortly after the revelation that ASARCO’s slag was being used, it was discovered that Holcim had also been importing tons of slag from a lead and zinc smelter in Trail, British Columbia. Caught in the act, Holcim proudly pointed out, in a masterful example of corporate spin, that the imported Canadian slag burns “even cleaner” than the ASARCO slag.

One of those not jumping for joy was Anne Hedges of the Montana Environmental Information Center. Pointing out that a DEQ consultant’s report showed that the Canadian slag had heavy metal levels three to five times higher than ASARCO’s slag, Hedges says: “These substances don’t just disappear because they go into the kiln. How much is ending up in the air is unknown, but we know it’s cause for concern.”

Another cause for concern that came to light after Holcim’s slag-burning was exposed is that the Ashgrove cement plant in the Helena Valley has been tossing about 18,000 tons of ASARCO’s slag into its kiln for 30 years now with no permit, no analysis and—surprise, surprise—no regulation. Which brings us back to Schweitzer’s “new day in Montana” and his promise to be on the issue “like stink on a skunk.”

Since the companies only conduct once-annual emissions tests—with no independent state testing—it’s no surprise that the skunks don’t smell their own stink. Self-monitoring, after all, is a very Republican way of “regulating” companies that came into wide practice after so many years of pollution-friendly administrations ignoring public health in favor of corporate profits.

What is surprising, and dismally disappointing, is the response all this toxic burning has elicited from the state. Just last week, DEQ issued a press release in which Opper announced that “Holcim Inc. has agreed to limit use of slag at its cement plant near Three Forks, Montana.”

A closer look at the issue, however, reveals quite another story. Although Holcim agreed to stop using the 1,000 annual tons of Canadian slag, it will increase its use of ASARCO slag from 10,000 to 15,000 tons a year.

DEQ’s press release, employing Bush-like environmental double-speak, and in direct contradiction to the obvious 50 percent increase in slag burning, crowed: “This will result in a substantial limitation in the amount of slag that can be used in the kiln.”

“This is pathetic, a slap on the wrist to the company that ignored all the laws and did what they wanted to do, and now are asking forgiveness,” MEIC’s Hedges told reporters. “They shouldn’t be burning slag until they know what’s coming out of the stack.”

Hedges is right. Without doing emissions tests, DEQ should err on the side of protecting human health and the environment. Cement, after all, can be made without burning toxic slag.

Considering Holcim’s plan to burn millions of tires a year for fuel, Opper’s rosy—and inaccurate—press releases are cause for concern. So is the news that DEQ has no plans to regulate the burning of slag by the Ashgrove cement plant.

There’s been too much toxic stink from too many corporate skunks in Montana for far too long. If Schweitzer means to keep his promises—and I believe he does—it’s time for the governor to have a serious talk with his agency directors about what “a new day for Montana” means when it comes to truly protecting Montana’s environment.

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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