Cutting EPA budget would harm and burden Montanans

Phil Knight

The boisterous honks of migrating snow geese one recent frosty morning at first made me smile. Then I recalled the geese that perished a year ago in the Berkeley Pit near Butte. The 50 billion gallons of water in the pit, laden with heavy metals like arsenic, cobalt and cadmium, is so acidic it killed thousands of geese despite all efforts to deter birds from the site.

The Pit is emblematic of Montana’s mining legacy: A giant hole left by Anaconda Copper and filling with poisonous water, it’s part of the nation’s largest Superfund site, a vast area of Montana polluted by mine waste. Without ongoing treatment, such waste threatens the health of humans as well as animals and our economy.

Corporations like W.R. Grace and Anaconda Copper made fortunes off of Montana’s abundant minerals, but also left toxic waste and carcinogens like asbestos, lead, and arsenic scattered across our landscape and communities. Clean-up of Superfund sites – 17 in Montana alone – often falls to the Environmental Protection Agency after many corporations fold or declare bankruptcy, leaving us the mess.

The EPA’s Superfund program is designed to step in where private initiative is lacking and clean up hazardous messes like the Butte mining district. But EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, appointed by President Trump, aims to cut the Superfund up to 30 percent, leaving the fund threadbare and hamstringing ongoing cleanup efforts. Meanwhile Pruitt squanders taxpayer money with an unprecedented army of security guards and booking costly private jets in lieu of commercial flights.

Montana Senators Jon Tester (D) and Steve Daines (R) united to urge the Trump Administration to maintain Superfund clean-up work in Montana. They also should stand firmly against cutting the EPA budget, which has held steady for decades, even as it is forced to cover ever more corporate polluter clean-ups.

Superfund has made significant progress on massive clean-up projects like the Milltown Dam removal near Missoula, where a lake poisoned with heavy metal-laced sediments from mine waste now is a thriving wetland with a free-flowing Clark Fork River. In Libby, the EPA is neutralizing asbestos contamination that killed at least 200 people from lung disease and sickened thousands more – work that must continue through at least 2019.

Along with human lives, jobs also are at stake. Jeff Milchen, of the Montana-based American Independent Business Alliance said, “Montana’s clean air, water and wildlife are major draws for entrepreneurs choosing where to live and start businesses…our environment and economy are inextricably linked.”

The group recently launched a “Businesses for a Healthy Montana” sign-on letter and campaign gathering endorsements from business people who reject the Trump Administration’s attempts to defund and undermine the EPA and other laws protecting Montanans.

EPA spending largely happens through grants to states and localities, or through hiring local firms to do essential clean-up work, creating jobs in Montana. Without that funding, Montanans either will face higher state taxes or hazards left without proper cleanup.

While extractive industries often bemoan the cost of regulation, the taxpayer burden under weak enforcement and resulting pollution far exceeds those costs. Strong rules and enforcement are the only things preventing extractive industries from dumping their clean-up expenses onto us. If we want to avoid hemorrhaging taxpayer money through expensive programs like the Superfund, the path is through stronger law enforcement.

Massive amounts of work remain to clean up and contain toxic waste in Montana. Cutting the EPA budget could preclude cleaning up groundwater pollution in Livingston and undermine work in Anaconda and Columbia Falls, among others.

A fully funded Superfund offers Montana a brighter future. Failure to rid our landscape and waterways of poisons will ensure future generations of Montanans will pay – with their wallets, their health and possibly with their lives.

Congress should reject the reckless and anti-environmental agenda of Trump and let the EPA do the essential work of removing threats to the health of our citizens and environment.


Phil Knight is a 31-year resident of Montana who leads outdoor tours around the West. At one time he worked in the Lewistown area, helping clean up the Big Spring corridor.



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