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Ochenski: Toxic torts

Bush, Martz let polluters off the hook on waste cleanups



Recent news coming out of both the Bush and Martz administrations indicate that these so-called “leaders” have abandoned the well-being of average citizens for policies favoring multinational conglomerates. While everyone knows neither Judy Martz nor George W. Bush are particularly blessed between the ears, this abdication of elected responsibility to the welfare of the masses in order to protect the profits of the corporate elite, sets a new and shameful low in the history of our state and nation.

Starting at the top, President Bush recently announced that he wants to shift the burden of toxic waste cleanups from the companies responsible for the pollution to the backs of American taxpayers. To refresh your memory, the Comprehensive Environmental Remediation, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) came into being at the very end of President Carter’s term of office. This Act, better known as “Superfund,” was established under the logic that “the polluter pays.” The Superfund itself was a large pot of money derived from taxes on chemical production, which was targeted primarily because the nation was in shock over incidents like Love Canal, where drums of toxic chemical waste were secretly buried. Unsuspecting people built homes and raised families on the site, with all the horrible health and developmental maladies coming to light only after the victims had been exposed for years.

America lost its naivete about the true costs of its industrial society in this shocking episode and, in predictable reactionary fashion, Congress decided to close the barn door long after the toxic horse was gone. But then Ronald Reagan assumed the Oval Office. To put it mildly, the implementation of the Superfund program under the Reagan administration was a disaster. Here was a program that identified toxic waste sites, put the finger on those responsible for the pollution, and then held them responsible for the cleanup costs. If the company responsible for the pollution refused to clean it up, the feds could use the money in the Superfund to get the job done and then charge the companies triple the costs—a powerful incentive to make polluters pay. But holding companies responsible for anything was anathema to Reagan, just as it is to Bush and Martz, and eventually Reagan’s top administration officials were tried and sent to prison for their corrupt abuse of the program.

In his latest proposals, not only does Bush want to let the polluters off the hook, he wants American taxpayers to foot the bill to clean up the mess these industries leave behind. Here in Montana, we have unfortunate experience in these matters as we live with, among others, the nation’s largest Superfund site, the Clark Fork, and the nation’s newest Superfund site, Libby. While corporate executives fly back to lobby in D.C., we peasants get our meager incomes squeezed even further to clean up the toxics those execs left behind. Adding insult to injury, the General Accounting Office now has to sue Vice President Dick Cheney just to find out who was involved in the development of the Bush administration’s policies.

While this tragedy plays out on the national level, we have our own little “industry leads the leaders” party right here in Montana as Martz and her old insiders run an influence-peddling game under the rubric of the “Montana Majority Fund.” What’s hilarious about this group is that the funders are many of the same corporate powers (and polluters) that dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into Martz’s gubernatorial campaign under the equally-facetious name of “People for Montana.” But corporations such as Burlington Northern (20 toxic waste sites across the state) and Plum Creek Marketing (bringing new land developments to old clearcuts near you), are not “people”—nor are they a “majority” of Montanans. These are large corporations with very profit-focused reasons to elect industry cheerleaders to office in Montana.

Only through the vote of the people did some of the tens of millions of dollars from Montana’s share of the tobacco settlement get placed in trust for future generations. The rest, as is well known, got dumped into the state’s general fund, and only a small portion of that went towards anti-smoking campaigns. Can anyone think that it’s coincidence the U.S. Tobacco Co., R.J.R. Nabisco, and the Smokeless Tobacco Council, Inc. subsequently decide to give thousands to Martz’s new “Montana Majority” fund? Meanwhile, as average Montanans and businesses stare an uncertain energy future in the face, the inheritors of the publicly-developed assets of Montana Power Company (Northwestern Co. and PPL Global), find it appropriate to dump their own thousands to these same people who have been so adamantly defending the failed deregulation scheme.

Make no mistake about it: The same big-money interests that developed the Bush energy policy in secret find it awfully handy to have our taxpayer-financed military toppling unfriendly regimes under the guise of fighting some unfocused, unresolved, never-ending war on terror—despite the fact that toxic and hazardous wastes have killed, maimed, and injured many more Americans than any terrorist attack. So, too, with Bush’s recently announced plan to drop almost a hundred million U.S. taxpayer dollars to protect Occidental Petroleum’s pipeline from Colombian rebels. Why are we paying to protect a private pipeline in a foreign country? Because we get the oil it carries. And no, we don’t get a deduction for the generous contribution of American taxpayers...that would, after all, be interfering in the free market.

That these megacorporations will soon be able to walk away from the toxic results of their environmental irresponsibility, while leaving the tab behind for “the little people,” is a shameful blight on our nation’s history. Someday, however, the truth will come out and the ugly secrets—at least those that haven’t been shredded—will be revealed. When that day comes, historians will undoubtedly wonder how it was that the citizens of this great state and nation sat back and allowed such base interests to undermine our democracy—and to so blatantly lead our so-called leaders.

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

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