The Billings Outpost

Cleaning environment wasn’t always partisan



“To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven,” says the Preacher.

Comes now, it seems, a time of desire to ease environmental protection laws so that the business of business can be conducted more efficiently, more economically, and not to forget, more cheaply. And if you look at America today you will see clean rivers, clean air, and healthy workers, so what is there left to protect?

Well, plenty in my view, not the least of which is the status quo, which we got to only after some very, very hard lessons. Which, of course we have forgotten.

Laws, including environmental laws, are not created in a vacuum. Good or bad, all laws share the same birth; they are the response to a call for action from citizens and businesses.

In Montana we had problems. A 1983 report by the Montana Department of Health and Environmental Sciences stated: “… As late as 1969, the Upper Clark Fork River ran red with acid mine drainage, mine tailings and un-treated ore-processing wastewaters for 120 miles from Anaconda almost to Missoula.”

You could catch what few fish still lived in the river, but you couldn’t eat them.

Cleaning up the environment was not then a partisan political issue in Montana. The Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) was written in the early 1970s by a Republican state representative from Billings named George Darrow. Darrow was, by occupation, a petroleum geologist, a field not known to be too prissy about scenery or pollution.

But Darrow did care about it, and encouraged by President Nixon’s signing of the National Environmental Protection Act, began what he saw as his duty to protect Montana’s environment. The bill creating MEPA, was never seriously opposed. It was, Darrow told me, a “feel good” bill, and while it did create the Environmental Quality Council (EQC) to enforce environmental regulations, the Council had no teeth because it had no money. So everything was happy days until the time came to fund the EQC.

Then, it was a different story. The Anaconda Copper Co. of Butte was almost rabid in its opposition to funding the EQC, and with good reason — for them. They had created an enormous mess of toxic air, polluted waters, and citizens with high levels of lead and arsenic in their bodies. The Butte legislative delegation, all Democrats, were equally fanatic in their opposition to the funding. Darrow was in for a fight - and he was up to it.

The funding bill died three times, revived three times, and finally passed the Republican controlled House of Representatives, 72-27, with mostly Democrats voting against. It passed the Senate and was signed into law by Governor Anderson.

The issue crossed partisan political lines, and eventually gave us Montanans some those very things which we now seemingly no longer need to protect because it costs businesses too much money to follow regulations.

I understand it is the function of a business to make money, and to make as much of it as the market will bear. That’s good. But it is not the function of business, or mankind, for that matter, to trash the place where it lives.

Even a pig, given the opportunity, will not soil the place he sleeps. If the Stillwater Mining Company could get an award for environmental protection and still make money, any company worth its salt can make money while it follows Montana’s environmental laws.

Ironically, the very success of MEPA causes some to think, “Well, that problem’s not a problem anymore.” But this isn’t math, it is human nature, and while problems in math stay solved, problems caused by humans don’t.

There was an historian years ago who said, in effect, “History doesn’t teach, it punishes for lessons unlearned.” We’ve already had the lesson of cleaning up someone else’s mess, let’s not forget it.

Jim Elliott is a former state senator who represented Mineral, Sanders, and parts of Lincoln and Missoula counties.

Last Updated on Thursday, 11 September 2014 13:01

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