Montanans Should Be Grateful For The EPA

Aug 4, 2014

In today’s partisan climate it has become predictable sport to rail on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Montana legislators, industries, local government, chambers of commerce and, recently, Congressman Steve Daines, constantly pummel EPA. All because the agency is simply doing its job.

They hammer EPA’s proposed carbon emission rules, which is simply a modest and flexible attempt to reduce some greenhouse gas emissions as well as reduce public health risks posed by toxins that coal-burning produces. But to the critics it’s a “war on coal.” In reality, the coal lobby has bigger problems. This medieval fuel simply cannot compete in a free market with cheaper fossil fuels such as natural gas. Because of that coal supporters demand society provide an expensive subsidy – the ability to pollute public air, which requires posing harm to the climate and human health. Curiously, the folks who demand this subsidy are often the same voices condemning – and stopping -- feeble tax breaks for development of alternative energy.

The other target of EPA critics is the agency’s proposed rule clarifying what waters are subject to protections under the federal Clean Water Act. The rule simply clears up confusion created by two muddled U.S. Supreme Court cases. It clarifies that those waters protected for more than 30 years before the high court confused things should continue to be protected. But the critics, including Montana’s lone congressman, distort the rule’s purpose, parroting each other’s slogans and claiming that an overbearing EPA is expanding its reach and will prohibit farmers from using irrigation ditches or spraying weeds. Nonsense. They are fear-mongering.

In truth, EPA has been an extraordinarily positive force for Montana. Sure, the agency, like all agencies, occasionally blunders or does something ham-handed. The preponderance of what EPA brings to Montana, however, has made our state a much better place.

Without EPA and the federal statutes and rules it administers, the winter air in Missoula and other communities would still be awful. Many of our rivers would still be sullied by community wastewater discharges. Sources of non-point pollution from urban and rural areas would still be damaging water quality. Until EPA had a role, the State of Montana was not tackling these problems.

Montana has 17 national priority sites in EPA’s Superfund cleanup program. They gained this status because for 100-plus years Montana’s lawmakers put industrial development above public and environmental health. These sites are only cleaned up, or, hopefully, on their way to being cleaned up, because of EPA’s role and the dedicated staff it brings to bear.

More than 200 people in Libby had died from asbestos related disease, and hundreds more sickened, before somebody did something about it. That somebody was EPA. Montana’s environmental regulators and state politicians largely ignored or were oblivious to the problem. EPA and its brethren federal health agencies have spent tens of millions of federal dollars responding to the health problems of Lincoln County residents. EPA has removed more than a million cubic yards of contaminated material around Libby, where notorious polluter W.R. Grace was once welcomed with open arms by local government and the State.

Without EPA the hundreds of millions of dollars poured into cleanup of mining contaminated areas in Butte, Anaconda, along the Clark Fork River floodplain and at Milltown reservoir would not have occurred. EPA invoked the Superfund program and forced the responsible party, Arco, which had absorbed the assets and liabilities of the Anaconda Company, to pay. This wasn’t popular at first. Politicians representing contaminated upper river communities Butte, Anaconda and Opportunity, told EPA and its Superfund program to go away. An Arco-funded group at Milltown lobbied for half-baked cleanup and retaining the crumbling dam. But EPA persevered. Today, people complain the agency isn’t doing enough cleanup. Would this activity have happened if, say, it had been left to the Montana Legislature, Arco and the state’s politically pressured and beleaguered environmental regulators? Not likely.  

EPA has or will remedy significant pollution problems at mining sites at Superior, near Neihardt, Hughesville and Basin, and at the smelter site at Black Eagle. In several cases, the State of Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality asked for the help. Much of DEQ’s budget is funded by – please take note anti-EPA fans -- federal dollars provided through EPA.

Very little of this, and myriad other, undeniably beneficial activities would have occurred if left to the State of Montana. Even today. That’s because our recent Legislatures – and a few governors – have focused more on how to weaken environmental protections and enable more pollution. Montana should thank its lucky stars for the EPA.

This is Bruce Farling of Montana Trout Unlimited. Contact us