Waste not: Why out-of-state pollution doesn’t belong in Montana

Depending on your point of view, Montana can be seen in a couple different ways. For many of us, it’s the greatest place on the globe to live thanks to our incredible mountain ranges, world-famous rivers, wide-open spaces and abundant wildlife. For others, it’s an almost empty place where you can dig, drill and otherwise extract and exploit natural resources, or bury massive quantities of industrial waste. Once again, this time under the administration of Gov. Brian Schweitzer, Montanans must decide if we want to enter a new era of exploitation.

Those who have recently moved to Montana, with what is now called our “diversified economy,” may not recall some historic milestones in the long battle with the hordes of exploiters who have taken what they wanted from the state and left behind enormous problems for future generations.

Just before the turn of the 20th century and shortly after Montana became a state, the Copper Kings were making money hand over fist digging copper ore in Butte. Miners extracted the copper from the rock in open fires, creating choking clouds of toxic gases that killed both vegetation and citizens. Copper King Marcus Daly decided the solution was a single huge smelter in Anaconda, where a 550-foot tall stack was built to loft the wastes into the atmosphere.

This large-scale translocation of industrial wastes had predictable effects—namely, the death of vegetation and cattle downwind of the smelter. So great was the devastation that President Teddy Roosevelt went to battle with the Anaconda Company to try and stop the pollution—a battle he lost due to the power of the copper industry and its financial backers, who would continue to pollute Montana at will for most of the next century.

Jump forward in time to the 1970s, when a new era of exploitation wracked the state through strip mining eastern Montana’s coal fields. The drafters of Montana’s Constitution, however, knew their history well, so they inserted guarantees of a “clean and healthful” environment for all of Montana’s citizens in the new constitution, as well as the requirement that “all lands disturbed by the taking of natural resources shall be reclaimed.” Unlike in the past, the new coal mines were bracketed and bound by these provisions although, truth be told, only a fraction of the strip mines have been fully reclaimed.

In the early ’80s the nuclear energy industry began looking for places to bury its spent uranium for the next 50,000 years and Montana once again found itself in the crosshairs as a potential dumping ground. But Montana’s citizens rose to the occasion again and, through a citizen initiative, outlawed the storage of nuclear waste within the state’s borders.

A decade later, in the early ’90s, as the coal trains headed east laden with fuel for the coal-fired power plants of the Midwest, some figured since they were coming back empty, why not just fill them with garbage, make the return trip profitable for the railroads and turn eastern parts of the state into a giant landfill? The large cities were out of room to bury their wastes and Montana had lots of room. Again Montanans rallied to keep the state from becoming the garbage pit for the nation, this time through the legislature, which passed the Mega-Landfill Siting Act that has effectively stopped mega-landfills here ever since.

Now comes Schweitzer with the latest in the long string of bad ideas for Montana. Schweitzer wants to pipe in carbon dioxide (CO2), a potent greenhouse gas that has been declared a pollutant by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, from a coal-fired power plant in Saskatchewan, Canada, and bury it beneath Montana’s Hi-Line plains.

It’s certainly no secret that Schweitzer, dubbed “the Coal Cowboy” by national media, has been riding his coal pony for some years now in hopes of convincing Montanans that one of the dirtiest fuels on earth can somehow be “clean and green.” One of the ways that can happen, according to Schweitzer, is to bury or “sequester” the CO2.

But there are many problems with Schweitzer’s rap on this topic. For one thing, CO2 sequestration is not a proven technology—especially at the quantities generated by industrial facilities. The Canadian coal plant, for instance, would ship 1,000 tons of CO2 to Montana every day, where the gas would be pumped into the ground under enormous pressures.

Another problem is that no one really knows what will happen when so much compressed gas is pumped underground. The storage areas, known as “pore space,” may contain other materials, such as water or oil, which would be displaced by the CO2. Where does it go? No one knows. Will it stay underground? No one knows. Will it pollute groundwater or force saline groundwater into clean aquifers? No one knows.

The governor contends that if the formations once held oil or gas, they’ll also hold CO2. But again, those areas that held oil or gas have been drilled, fractured and pumped for nearly a century. One only need look at the on-going disaster of the leaking, poorly-sealed oil wells around Kevin and Sunburst to understand that it is likely that high-pressure CO2 will eventually find its way through the rock or out old well holes with potentially devastating effects.

Finally, the Montana Legislature has yet to act to determine who will be responsible for the long-term liability for massive CO2 storage operations. The bill to set those wheels in motion was tabled early in the session and, without a legal framework in place, none of the governor’s sequestration plans can go forward. Not one.

So once again, the seminal question faces Montanans: Are we nothing more than a burial ground for industrial wastes and large-scale pollution? Or are we one of the most clean and beautiful places on earth? I guess it all depends on how you look at our state. But as history has proven, the exploiters have seldom been right.

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.
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