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Here we go again

The myth of clean resource extraction returns



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

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