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Montana SCOTUS case a Superfund showdown

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Rockies Today

October 1 · Issue #9 · View online
The big stories up and down the Rocky Mountains, curated by Mountain West News

Montana SCOTUS case a Superfund showdown
Pollution in and around Anaconda, Montana, dates back more than a century, to when the town was created to process copper from the giant mine in nearby Butte. Now, a legal battle over the pollution is heading to the U.S. Supreme Court. Bloomberg Environment’s Sylvia Carignan reports on Atlantic Richfield v. Christian’s big implications for Superfund law and environmental cleanups across the country.
Century of toxic gloom drives Montanans back to Supreme Court Century of toxic gloom drives Montanans back to Supreme Court
From his seat on a sun-worn wicker couch, Shaun Hoolahan reaches down to the corgi panting at his side and tells her to roll over. Bessie flips belly-up, exposing a pink, golf ball-sized lump on her chest.
“Tumors,” he said, pointing out the spot on the dog’s front left paw where a cancerous toe was amputated. “She’s got them all over her body.”
For years, grass wouldn’t grow on some parts of his two-acre property, and Bessie used to spend lots of time lying in the dirt in his yard, Hoolahan said. “I could fertilize, water, and just nothing would grow there,” he said. “The more I started to dig into it, the more concern I had.”
More than a century ago, farmers on the same Montana land noticed their horses getting ulcers where their noses brushed the ground to feed. They said their sheep mysteriously became ill, only to recover when they moved farther away from the copper smelter their community was built around. A federal appeals court agreed with one of the state’s biggest companies that the farmers were only exaggerating.
Today, Hoolahan’s yard and many of the former farmers’ properties are part of the largest Superfund complex in the country. The Environmental Protection Agency and Atlantic Richfield Co. have been working to clean it up for more than 35 years. Arco says it’s spent $450 million on cleanup efforts, and the EPA “has made substantial clean-up progress at the Anaconda Smelter Superfund site over the nearly four decades of work,” Chris Wardell, a spokesman for the agency, said in an email.
New landowners, though, say the soil is still poisoned from decades of the old smelter stack belching lead, arsenic, and cadmium, leaving layers of toxic waste, invisible to the naked eye, coating their yards and historic homes. They’re carrying on the legal battle that began a century ago—and this time, the law has been on their side.
Leaning on an article written into the state constitution at the height of the Earth Day movement, Montana’s highest court in 2017 allowed the landowners to take their claims to trial. Atlantic Richfield quickly asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene. Landowners will make their case in oral arguments in December, an opportunity their forebears were denied 108 years ago.
If the court decides the landowners can dictate their own cleanup and bill Atlantic Richfield for the costs, “it almost neuters Superfund,” said Shoshana Schiller, partner at Manko, Gold, Katcher & Fox LLP in Bala Cynwyd, Pa.
Carignan discusses her reporting on Bloomberg Environment’s environmental policy podcast:
Toxic waste case at SCOTUS affects big business, small town
Meanwhile, in Butte…
Berkeley Pit discharge hits creek Monday morning
Pendley to remain BLM's acting director
And more Interior Department and public lands news:
Advocate for selling off public lands will remain BLM's acting director
Pendley's BLM nod could foreshadow a Trump nomination
Vela takes National Park Service reins after all
Oil and gas lease in Badger-Two Medicine permanently retired
Feds to open Utah’s national parks to ATVs; advocates fear damage, noise they may bring
Federal judge declines to dismiss Bears Ears lawsuit
A game of hot potato over Wyoming coal mines
Who is FM Coal and why does it want Blackjewel's coal mines? Who is FM Coal and why does it want Blackjewel's coal mines?
In the heart of the Powder River Basin, just off Wyoming Highway 59, a pair of the nation’s largest coal mines have become what some are calling “zombie” mines.
Once ranked as the fourth- and sixth- highest producing mines in the country, Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines have been running on fumes with the help of a skeleton crew for four months, as the company’s bankrupt owner Blackjewel attempts to sell them off.
Some companies, including the mines’ previous owner (and current permit holder), Contura Energy, have expressed interest in purchasing the facilities. Though the sale received endorsement from a federal bankruptcy court in August, it has yet to close. The federal government objected to outstanding mineral royalties and lease terms.
But comments from Contura executives suggest the coal supplier may not want to stick in the basin for long anyway. The game of hot potato over the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines has most recently fallen into the lap of an entirely new company, Eagle Specialty Materials, an affiliate of FM Coal.
According to Contura’s Sept. 18 announcement, Eagle Specialty Materials would operate the two mines and assume the reclamation obligations, after Contura paid the new company $90 million. The newcomer would also settle “certain” outstanding debts to creditors and assume the $237 million in reclamation bonds associated with the mines.
Who is FM Coal?
More from Wyoming’s coal country:
Blackjewel, fearing employee theft, called cops during closure
Some analysts optimistic about PRB coal amid consolidation, exports
And more energy news:
An inside look at Rocky Mountain Power's 600-battery DR project in Utah
Idaho Falls wind turbines at center of Jackson Hole's new energy plan
TC Energy aims to restart Keystone XL oil pipeline prep work despite protest
University of Montana hollowed out
The University of Montana has lost more students this decade than any other flagship. What’s going on?
No public flagship has been hollowed out more in the last decade than the University of Montana at Missoula.
On Tuesday the university released the results of its undergraduate census, reporting a headcount of 6,321 for the fall of 2019. Compare that with the count taken at the start of the decade, in 2011, when 10,567 undergraduates enrolled. Indeed, after eight years of back-to-back declines, Montana’s undergraduate class has decreased by more than 40 percent, according to figures released by the university.
The numbers were first reported on Tuesday by the Montana Kaimin, the university’s student newspaper.
Though the data are less recent than the numbers released this week, disclosures by America’s flagship universities to the U.S. Department of Education over the past decade illustrate just how severe the declines have been at the Montana flagship.
From the fall of 2011 to the fall of 2017, the university shed nearly a third of its undergraduates, according to disclosures made to the Education Department. That 30-plus-percent decline dwarfed those seen at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks and the University of Idaho, which had the second- and third-largest enrollment dips, respectively, but posted much smaller losses during the same period.
What’s behind the drop?
More stories we're reading today
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New Mexico State University part of $100 million project to address fracking waste water
Is Colorado ready to accept marijuana tourism?
I was flying to Montana to bury my son
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O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West, University of Montana, Missoula, Montana, 59812