Here we go again

The myth of clean resource extraction returns

| February 23, 2012

The federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980 more commonly referred to as the "Superfund" program, was signed into law in the last days of Jimmy Carter's presidency. Shortly thereafter and much to the shame of Montanans, Butte, Anaconda, and the entire Clark Fork River down to the Milltown Dam became America's largest Superfund site. It looked like the mining industry was finally being held accountable for the almost unimaginable environmental damage it has wreaked upon Montana. But now, after a decades-long public relations battle, the resource extraction industries are again pushing the myth that such activities can be "done right" to protect Montanans and their environment. That's pure, unadulterated baloney.

For more than a century Montana has been a resource extraction colony for Wall Street's "Captains of Industry." Those who have studied Montana history can easily recount the sad tales, from the initial efforts to remove the native Indians from areas they had occupied for thousands of years to the massive land giveaways to the railroads that "opened the West." Those railroads were supposed to serve Montanans in exchange for the millions of acres of free federal lands, but today many of those tracks, especially those to smaller communities, now lie rusting or ripped out while the off-spring corporations of the railroad barons sell the land for subdivision development after having shaved it bald through industrial logging.

Likewise, the cattle barons demanded—and still demand—the removal of anything that competes with their livestock for grass or threatens them through predation or disease. The millions of bison that once roamed the Great Plains paid the greatest price of appeasement when they were wiped out nearly to extinction. But so, too, were the wolves, grizzlies, mountain lions and coyotes mercilessly killed en masse to keep the stockgrowers happy.

Then came the timber barons, who turned the virgin old growth forests of the state into stump fields while reaping fabulous wealth.

And of course we live still with the grim legacy left behind by the copper kings, which, besides the wholesale destruction of the headwaters of the mighty Columbia River, goes far beyond Butte and includes thousands of unreclaimed mines and mills still littering—and poisoning—the state.

Late in the game came the oil and gas industry, which ran in booms and busts across the Hi-Line and eastern Montana, leaving behind thousands of abandoned wells that continue to pollute precious aquifers as well as surface lands and waters.

For a brief moment in time, a decade or two at most, Montanans fought back against the destruction. Our 1972 Constitution threw off the copper collar with the guarantee that every Montanan had an "inalienable right" to a "clean and healthful environment." That same Constitution established the Resource Indemnity Trust, levying a small tax on certain resource extraction industries to ensure that "all lands disturbed by the taking of natural resources shall be reclaimed."

Going into the new millennia it looked like we had perhaps turned a corner, learned from history, and were seeking other avenues of economic activity. Learned scholars dubbed this the "New West" while others, especially politicians seeking populist votes, praised the "restoration economy" that would redress past damages. We were told that rivers could be repaired, ecosystems could be brought back into balance and endangered species could be saved from extinction and even reintroduced.

The resource extraction industries took full advantage of such political folderol claiming they were no longer the mining, logging, ranching, and oil and gas industries of the past. The "new" resource extractors, we were told, would "do it right" in the future. Foolishly, many Montanans—and especially those same politicians seeking populist votes—took that bait hook, line and sinker.

And then came the Great Recession, in which "jobs" took precedent over everything, including in what shape we leave Montana for future generations. The resource extraction industries went at it with a vengeance to make up for lost time. Coal bed methane, natural gas fracking, massive mining of coal to be shipped to China, and a new "war on wolves" to keep Montana safe for cows while keeping bison locked tight within Yellowstone's borders. Even the timber industry, for which the housing bust mostly eliminated the demand for lumber, has found a champion in Sen. Jon Tester and Gov. Brian Schweitzer to mandate harvest levels on national forests to theoretically "maintain the timber infrastructure."

The truth is that nothing much has really changed. Golden Sunlight, once lauded as the poster child of "new mining," continues to leak toxins into the groundwater that will have to be treated "in perpetuity." Coalbed methane has seriously degraded the Tongue River with saline waste water. Oil and gas drilling in the Bakken Formation promises to leave behind centuries of leaking wells whose cases only degrade further with time as well as undetermined fracking chemicals that poison groundwater.

If anyone thinks things have changed, take a minute to talk with the folks in Marysville, where a Canadian gold mining company is destroying wells, disrupting residents with around-the-clock noise and pollution and ruining a recently-paved road to the community.

It's apparent that "doing it right" is nothing but industry double-talk for business as usual—and a convenient dodge for weak-kneed politicians and their backers whose convictions on environmental protection are far outweighed by their political ambitions and allegiance to the resource extraction industries. In the meantime, Montana still sits right near the bottom of the per capita income barrel.

We can learn from the past and chose to leave the devastation of natural resource extraction behind. Or we can ignore the on-going and growing problems and believe the fairy tale. The choice is ours. But make no mistake, the price will ultimately be paid by future generations.

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at

Comments (10)

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This identical comment appeared in the Helena Independent Record yesterday (and I had it pulled there too) ... so either you're not being truthful or you are part of a concerted effort to discredit Jesse. Not sure which is worse. Having said that, you can go online and find out every single political contribution I have made because I don't hide behind the anonymity of a fake name in the comments section. Why don't you tell us who you really are and we can find out who you contribute to and what special interests you represent?

Posted by JohnMacDonald on 02/24/2012 at 10:17 PM

Laslovich is the worst possible choice for AG. This guy cost Great Falls hospital patients millions by carrying a bill to deregulate Benefis, and he doesn't even live here. A real scumbag.

Posted by Paul Stephens on 02/24/2012 at 5:41 PM

You have to be joking. A few contributions of $50 (out of hundreds - close to a thousand contributions) mean he's controlled by lobbyists? Get real! He's raising the most money and from a diverse group of people, which means he can win in the general. Bucy and her Bucy Bots are just going negative and it's desperate. I guess the Helena-insiders think they might not win this one, so they're getting desperate. Also, Bucy has loaned her campaign over $10,000 dollars (which means her campaign is also 10k in debt) ... Bucy and the Republican candidates are the ones that are stuffing their own campaign coffers, trying to buy their own victories. Sad.

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Posted by Ted on 02/24/2012 at 3:49 PM

Dear Mr. MacDonald, It seems I got some bad information. Apologies to you sir and to the readers of this article. I have not posted this elsewhere, so I regret that I cannot help you there.

It does not change the fact that, according to the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices website, these other donations were accepted by Laslovich:

Leo Berry, Lobbyist for Coal Mountain Mining, BNSF, and Monsanto hosted a fundraiser for Mr. Laslovich, amount unknown)
Cary Hegreberg, Executive Director, Montana Contractors Assn. $50
Geoffrey Feiss, Executive Director, Montana Telecommunications Assn. $50
Debbie Shea, Executive Director, Montana Mining Association $50
Ronna Alexander, Executive Director, Montana Petroleum Marketers Assn. $100
Jesse Luther, lobbyist, Monsanto, Yellowstone Insurance Exchange, BNSF Railway $100
E.J. Redding, lobbyist for Rehberg's former staffer, 47 N Communications $50

I also know that the people writing these checks aren't just doing so because they don't want a conservation minded attorney general. They each are involved in businesses or ideological causes that have clear policy agendas with state government

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Posted by Dan on 02/24/2012 at 1:14 PM

Dan, (tell me who you really are)
This is John MacDonald writing. You will notice that your inaccurate comment stating that I am a lobbyist for Arch Coal has been removed from this web site, as well as at least one other newspaper where you posted it. I do not know from where you received the inaccurate information, or whether you just made it up. But I do not, nor have I ever, lobbied for Arch Coal, nor does anyone with my Helena firm lobby for Arch Coal. Had you taken two minutes to check the Secretary of State's web site, you would know for whom I DO lobby. I donated to Jesse's campaign because he's a personal friend and someone I respect for his thoughtful approach to issues. I'd like to know who YOU are and where you got your information. I'm easy to find. Give me a ring.

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Posted by JohnMacDonald on 02/24/2012 at 11:07 AM

A comment that violated our submission guidelines has been removed from this thread.

Posted by Matthew Frank on 02/24/2012 at 10:43 AM


Thank you for providing your views. I appreciate that we all have differing opinions on elections and that's what makes democracy great. For me, I am voting for Pam Bucy because she has been endorsed by the Montana Conservation Voters, of which I am a member, and because clean air and water are important to me.

I also know that the people writing these checks aren't just doing so because they don't want a conservation minded attorney general. They each are involved in businesses or ideological causes that have clear policy agendas with state government.

Posted by Dan on 02/24/2012 at 9:50 AM

Geoffrey Feiss represents all the little telecommunications business. He usually seems to spend most his time trying to protect small local internet companies from bresnan. Montana telecommunications assn does not have the resources to “bankroll” hence the 50 bucks that I suspect is actually from Geoffrey personal account not a $50 PAC check.

Jesse was a Senator from Anaconda and BSNF has a major facility in Silver Bow county that all of Montana benefits from. Either this is a PAC check from BSNF or it is a personal check from Mrs. Luther, neither are signs of “bank rolling.” Also Debbie Shea is a Butte resident who I also assume gave $50 from her personal checking account, as you will find she donates to almost every democrat candidate from Butte/Anaconda. Besides the Mining Association is located on the MT Tech campus. Also another great resource for Montana and the area that Jesse grew up.

Most of your post is nitpicking small donations from citizens. I almost guarantee that Feiss and Shea will not be on Tim Fox’s campaign report. The reality is that Jessse’s broad support base makes him the better candidate to win the state wide election. During primary season hardened democrats sometimes forget that Montana is a purple state, at best, and outside of 2008 generally sports a shade of red. We need to win the AG race and I think both candidates should be talking money wherever they can get it. Especially since anonymous corporate money is about to flow freely into the state and we all know that Fox and other republican’s like Rehberg have no problem being “bank rolled” by corporations.

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Posted by Paul on 02/23/2012 at 1:56 PM

I would add the 'citizens united' ruling that allows big corporate to foul the airwaves and corrupt the political process with their big bucks to make it all 'worthwhile.'

Posted by Al V. on 02/23/2012 at 12:29 PM

It is sad that more people don't pay more attention to the history of this great state. Extractive industries and good ole boy politics have left deep scars on the culture and landscape of our state. Even as we try to dig out from under all the pollution and restore the humanity back to the way we treat our citizens, we remain under constant attack from every side. You would have thought that our dems might have been a bit of a fire wall between us and the rabid right, but they seem more like GOP lobbyists when it comes to serving their base. It doesn't take a big stretch of the imagination to figure out who is paying them to unravel our state constitution and demean the public. What is really confusing is the fact that they do this with impunity and pretend no one is noticing.

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Posted by befuddled on 02/23/2012 at 8:29 AM
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