The First Amendment recognizes and guarantees “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” That certainly was the purpose behind the recent “Restore Our Creek” rally in Butte. Butte’s citizens assuredly have a lot to petition for redress regarding the Superfund cleanup.
Recent developments show the ineptitude of EPA’s and MDEQ’s remediation efforts: MDEQ is slowing down the cleanup of the Clark Fork because it is running out of money; MDEQ is running out of money for the cleanup of the Montana Pole Plant and may not be able to operate the water treatment plant for as long as is needed; EPA has utterly failed to properly characterize the contamination in Anaconda even after decades. EPA and MDEQ dawdle and dissemble over removing the tailings from Silver Bow Creek. Pervasive secrecy still shrouds EPA cleanup negotiations with the responsible parties. Westside Priority Soils has languished for years and EPA doesn’t even know the boundary for the site. The list goes on and on. EPA and MDEQ had at best only a token presence at the Restore Our Creek rally and no high level decision makers were present. All we hear from the agencies is that Butte citizens should persevere and keep up the good work. It is time to see food on our plate.
While it would be nice if government did the right thing automatically, it doesn’t work that way. Citizens must constantly hold government accountable. It is a duty of citizens to be involved in politics and government. Such involvement is needed now more than ever and the Restore Our Creek coalition and the other groups and individuals working for a real cleanup can’t do it alone. Citizens have a right to feel weary; this incompetent and inept approach to cleanup has been going on for too long.
As long as the toxic waste in Butte remains unremediated, that waste is a clear and present threat to the public health of Butte and surrounding communities. (Just look at Anaconda.) As long as the toxic waste in Butte remains unremediated, economic development will be chimerical and elusive. The preferred remedy of cap, fence and declare off limits need not be tolerated. The good words uttered at the Restore Our Creek rally must produce citizen action by all of us. “Be great in act, as you have been in thought — Suit the action to the word and the word to the action.” (Shakespeare)
What is to be done?
1. Support groups working for a real cleanup. As great as they are, they can’t do it alone.
2. Apply positive pressure to elected government officials on a local, state and national level. Local government needs to be a proactive and forceful force for a good cleanup. It was heartening that Chief Executive Palmer committed the local government to support the efforts of Restore Our Creek but action is needed. Contact your representative on the Council of Commissioners. Don’t forget state government. Contact our local senators and representatives, in person if possible, and demand that they make sure MDEQ lives up to its obligation under the Montana Constitution to provide citizens with a clean and healthy natural environment. Federally, we have two senators and one representative. Senator Tester has been an active proponent of a good cleanup. Senator Daines has verbally expressed his support. Ask them to act to pressure EPA. Agencies are more likely to respond to elected officials who control their budget than they are to ordinary citizens. We need to get our representatives to act with persistent pressure.
3. This will be controversial — Perhaps we need to start considering litigation. When agencies are impervious to citizen comment, litigation will get them to pay attention and has been effective. If agencies did the right thing, litigation would be unnecessary but the agencies are not doing right by Butte and don’t seem willing to change. Litigation is the last resort of the exasperated and we are exasperated. Just a thought.
We all need to follow through on the good thoughts and words presented at the Restore Our Creek rally. "Our grand business is to do what lies clearly at hand.” (Carlyle)
-- John W. Ray, Ph.D, teaches classes in political science and public policy at Montana Tech. He is chairperson of Citizens for Labor and Environmental Justice in Butte and is a board member of the Citizens Technical Environmental Committee also in Butte. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of Montana Tech, CTEC or Citizens for Labor and Environmental Justice.