We are urged daily by Governor Racicot’s tourism ads to “invite a friend to Montana.” But apparently some friends are more welcome than others. The governor recently declared a “state of emergency” because the Rainbow Family of Living Light is holding its annual meeting near the tiny town of Jackson, in the headwaters of the Big Hole River. Some 20,000 hippies are expected to hang out in the woods, play guitars, beat drums and finally, on July 4, form a large circle, hold hands and pray for world peace and Mother Earth. According to Racicot, the gathering “may cause life-threatening situations and imminent threats to the public health and safety.” Should it become necessary to call out the National Guard, the emergency declaration is a required first step. But when it comes to “life-threatening situations and imminent threats to human health and safety,” 20,000 hippies can’t hold a candle to what Racicot and his administration have done to Montana during their tenure in office.
Consider these milestones in Racicot’s relentless pursuit of public health and safety:
• Hundreds of Montanans have died and many more are ill in Libby, the governor’s hometown, from asbestos-related diseases and cancers. Yet Racicot professes to have had no knowledge of the problems.
• The governor opposed the Clean Water Initiative and Future Fisheries Improvement Act, but supported and signed the notorious “bad water bills” of 1995 that increased allowable cancer-causing poisons in our water by factors ranging from 10 to a 1,000 times the prior standards. As an example, “acceptable” rates of deaths from chronic arsenic exposure used to be 1 in 1 million—now they are 1 in a 1,000. What’s dropping a few zeroes mean to you? Consider that an estimated 6.5 million tons of arsenic are backed up behind the Milltown Dam, have already poisoned the groundwater in Milltown and are seeping downgradient toward Missoula.
• From 1995 to 1998, Montana’s release of toxic wastes increased by 17 percent, putting this sparsely-populated state at 20th in the nation. Yet, in the recent special session of the legislature, the Governor signed a bill that exempts open pit mines from reclamation. While that sounds drastic, the truth is that mine reclamation has never been a high priority for this administration. Thanks to insufficient reclamation bonding by Racicot’s agencies, recent estimates say the public will likely have to pay tens of millions of taxpayer dollars if we want the mines cleaned up. In the meantime, the poisons continue to seep into our groundwater and blow into the air.
• A proliferation of game farms under Racicot’s administration has brought Chronic Wasting Disease to Montana. All the elk on one farm near Philipsburg had to be killed and burned, costing the state tens of thousands of dollars to bring in a portable incinerator because area landfills wouldn’t take the potentially contagious carcasses. Just last week, a similar extermination took place at another elk farm near Billings.
• While most people don’t think about personal income as directly related to health and public safety, our lowest-in-the-nation wages achieved during the Racicot tenure create a condition which is not amenable to increased spending on health care and preventive treatment. Meanwhile, our disastrous experiment in electricity deregulation promises to double the cost for utilities. The result? Low- or fixed-income families can now choose to heat, eat, or see the doctor or dentist. Pick one.
Will there be problems from the Rainbow gathering? Sure. People will have babies, get sick, maybe even die. Will some people neglect to handle their wastes in a proper manner? Sure. But when’s the last time you saw even one of Montana’s millions of cows dig a trench latrine? Undoubtedly, there will be petty thefts and increased pressure on welfare services, and some people will go to jail.
Still and all, 20,000 people camping in the woods is not without precedent beneath the Big Sky. Hundreds of thousands of Montana’s indigenous people roamed these lands for eons before we brought “civilization” to their attention and decimated their culture. And guess what? In all that time, the salmon swam upstream from the mighty Pacific to the headwaters of the Columbia, millions of bison roamed the plains, grizzlies and wolves hunted, eagles soared, and life in all its glorious diversity went on. The land was vibrant and healthy, yet there wasn’t a single Porta-Potty to be had.
Despite our governor’s purported concern for heath and safety, there are more threatened and endangered species in Montana now than ever before, the land and waters are poisoned, and we die young from industrial cancers every day. Just thinking about the real “Racicot Legacy” could make you crazy—but since the state’s mental health care system is in shambles, don’t look for help there.
If the Rainbow Family gathering is reason enough to declare a “state of emergency” and call out the National Guard, maybe we should take this opportunity to sic them on the real threat to public health and safety—which isn’t in the woods outside Jackson, but in the newly refurbished offices of the state Capitol.
George Ochenski has lobbied the Legislature since 1985, primarily on environmental, tribal and public interest issues. He works as a writer in Helena. The opinions expressed in “Independent Voices” do not necessarily reflect those of the Independent.