Right between the eyes 

Schweitzer steps up to Burlington Northern

Not in recent memory has a Montana governor had the guts to step up and face a major corporation head on for its irresponsible record of toxic pollution and decades-long evasion of cleanups. But Gov. Brian Schweitzer did just that when he made the decision to end the obfuscation and legal weaseling of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad (BN) over its hazardous waste sites scattered across the magnificent landscape of Montana. And when they fought back—as corporations always do—Schweitzer let ’em have it right between the eyes.

Back when Schweitzer was still on the campaign trail, and well before he had set foot in the governor’s office, he was blasting BN not for its toxic waste, but for the outrageous rates the railroad was charging Montana farmers to ship their grain out of state. Because BN has a total monopoly over rail lines coming into and leaving the state, the company could basically charge whatever the market would bear—and that turned out to be about double what Canadians and other states are paying. And just in case you thought this might be simple politics, Schweitzer’s sentiments were echoed by Sen. Conrad Burns, who likewise chided the nation’s second-largest railroad for ripping off Montana’s farmers.

Once in office, however, Schweitzer took a hard look at BN’s 22 toxic sites and the company’s long-standing reticence to spend the millions required to clean them up. As detailed in this column a month ago (see “Railroaded,” March 23, 2006], Schweitzer announced that it was “not acceptable for BN to leak diesel into our drinking water” and that the state would move forward with the necessary cleanups and charge BN for the costs.

BN reacted in predictable corporate fashion, as might be expected, considering its long history of almost unchallenged political power in this captive state. Tapping a corporate larder bloated on the backs of Montana’s farmers, BN bought full-page, statewide newspaper ads criticizing Schweitzer’s comments, saying: “BNSF Railway Company is surprised at the extremely inaccurate charges and characterizations recently made by the Montana state government.” BN then attempted to “set the record straight” by chronologically listing its actions and the actions of the state in an attempt to show that cleanup delays were caused by state agencies, not BN.

As it turns out, however, most of the “delays” BN listed occurred not under Schweitzer’s administration, but under the administrations of former Republican governors Stephens, Racicot, and Martz—which gave Schweitzer his opening to strike back hard and fast.

Schweitzer pointed out that former Gov. Judy Martz’s chief of staff had recently been hired as BN’s lobbyist—and that former Gov. Marc Racicot has been on BN’s Board of Directors ever since he left office.” What are they saying?” Gov. Schweitzer asked. “Was it that we were poorly managed at the state of Montana…or were they happy with what they were getting? Usually you reward your friends with jobs, not those you view to be incompetent.”

The railroad vehemently denied Schweitzer’s allegations, with spokesman Gus Melonas telling the Associated Press that it was “absolutely not true” that the company had rewarded officials from past administrations with jobs because they helped delay BN’s cleanups and that “The former staff had no impact toward BNSF’s commitment toward environmental cleanup and remediation.”

Melonas’ contention seems more than a little specious, however, in light of comments made to the press by state agency personnel who were in charge of the BN cleanups under the Racicot administration. In an April 2005 story in Spokane’s Spokesman-Review, reporter and former Montanan James Hagengruber quotes David Scrimm, the former technical services bureau chief for Montana Department of Environmental Quality, as saying: “Burlington wields a lot of political clout in Montana,” adding that “Scrimm said DEQ employees pushed hard for a faster cleanup but their efforts were rebuffed by Racicot.”

As for Racicot not being “rewarded” for his part in delaying the cleanups, consider these statistics uncovered by Butte writer Jackie Corr in an excellent piece on the relationship between Racicot and BN for Counterpunch earlier this year (see: “Working for the railroad,” http://www.counterpunch.org/corr01232006.html).

“Since Racicot left the Montana governor’s office,” Corr writes, “he has been on the Burlington Northern Board of Directors where he receives $60,000 annually for those duties. He has also been paid an unknown amount for lobbying by the corporation.” According to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing, Corr writes: “On August 2, 2005, Marc Racicot bought 10,750 shares of Burlington Northern Santa Fe stock. The price was $30.00 a share, $322,500 his total cost. Later that day Racicot sold the same 10,750 shares for $594,797 at $55.33 a share. Which means his total profit for this little quickie was $272,297. Certainly that is nice work for a day or less if you can get it.”

Ironically, in BN’s struggles to deny any “rewards” for those from former administrations who may have helped them delay massive cleanup expenditures, the corporation may have provided Schweitzer with a poster child for his efforts to ban former elected and appointed government officials from becoming lobbyists after leaving office.

In a perfect example of the “revolving door” Schweitzer hopes to close with a ballot initiative this fall, consider the case of Barbara Ranf, who went from US West lobbyist to the governor’s office as Martz’s chief of staff and is now a lobbyist for BN. If, as Schweitzer contends, these kinds of switches from public to private service are bad for Montana, he could ask for no better example as he travels the state stumping for his initiative—especially in those communities still awaiting cleanup of BN’s toxic wastes.

This saga is far from over, to be sure. But for now, Schweitzer should be applauded for standing up to an arrogant corporation that has long preyed on Montana’s farmers while leaving behind a toxic trail—and he nailed ’em right between the eyes.

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 opinion@missoulanews.com.

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