All the King’s horses and all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Butte back together again.
Learjets darkened the skies over Butte as the richest, most powerful moguls of American capitalism flew in for the so-called “Economic Development Summit” of Montana’s retiring U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. But despite all the media attention and fascination lavished on the rich and famous, somehow these visionaries managed to avoid talking about what was right in front of their eyes – Butte, Montana, where the Berkeley Pit filled with the nation’s largest toxic lake of mine waste sits ominously at the headwaters of the Columbia River.
It’s fair to say Baucus’ phony “summit” had very little to do with Montana and everything to do with the senator’s efforts to rewrite the federal tax code from his position as chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee. The representatives of the 1 percent threw significant amounts of cash into funding the affair, but those donations pale in light of the billions they would reap if Baucus listened to their never-ending pleas for lower taxes on the wealthiest corporations in the world.
The truth of the matter was revealed in scathing detail in an article in New Republic by David Dayen titled “Why Do Eric Schmidt, Sheryl Sandberg and Elon Musk Love Butte, Mont.?” There’s far more information than we have room for in this column, but if you want to see what’s really at stake, who’s really paying for what, and why this “summit” had virtually nothing to do with Montana, check it out at http://mashable.com/2013/09/18/top-ceos-butte-montana/.
Those names mean nothing to most Montanans who live firmly in the 99 percent world with the rest of the population and come dragging in at some of the lowest per capita incomes in the nation. But they sit at the head of companies that do business in the trillions of dollars, such as Google, Facebook and SpaceX/Tesla respectively. And for their efforts, these individuals receive salaries in the tens of millions of dollars annually. What that means in simplest terms is that they make more in cash and stock options in one day than most Montanans earn in two years.
Adding insult to injury, the New Republic article also shows the megacorporations pay almost nothing in taxes. A good example would be FedEx that paid an effective tax rate of 4.2 percent over the last five years, which is maybe one-seventh the rate its Montana employees pay each year. Luckily, that low tax rate gave FedEx the $31 million it spent on lobbying Congress in the last two years for, you guessed it, lower tax rates.
Of course none of this is news to Montanans and in particular the residents of Butte. One of Montana’s longest serving and most honored legislators, Francis Bardanouve, was fond of saying “they got the gold and we got the shaft.”
As proof, witness the ongoing legal battle for the hundreds of millions left from the fortune of Copper King William Clark, which was wrested from Butte by the blood and sweat of those who spent and often lost their lives in the dank underground mines. If there was any justice in this nation, that money should rightfully come back to repair the on-going damages left behind when those same Copper Kings abandoned their toxic legacy in Montana for their East Coast mansions.
While the EPA and ARCO have spent 30 years supposedly “cleaning up” Butte, Anaconda, and the Clark Fork, the Berkeley Pit bears mute testament to the reality of the situation there.
As the level of poisonous water rises, the sloping banks are collapsing into the pit, lifting the toxics ever closer to the groundwater and its eventual escape into the headwaters of the Columbia River. Should the area ever experience the “biblical” floods that just hit Colorado, the massive Yankee Doodle tailings that reside above the pit, which are only held back by an earthen dam, would likely flush out, creating an almost unimaginable environmental catastrophe.
Unfortunately, the captains of industry, wealth and power in our nation seem to share a single credo: Don’t look back. They probably don’t even recall that Baucus tried but failed to exempt mining waste from the Superfund back in the late ’80s. Instead, under the rubric of economic development, they shamelessly lobbied for more tax breaks while completely ignoring the grim reality in front of their eyes – the “collateral damage” on the road to massive wealth that is Butte, Montana.
George Ochenski writes a weekly column for the Missoulian’s Monday Opinion page. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.