One hundred years ago, Montana's state government was being smothered by corporate corruption. Standard Oil, owner of Anaconda Copper, controlled state lawmakers to the point of demanding and getting special sessions of the legislature called for their benefit.
Another copper baron, William Clark, literally bought Montana's U.S. Senate seat three times by bribing state legislators who used to select those senators. Montana eventually passed campaign finance and anti-corruption laws that are now being challenged and reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court, which will precipitate a revisiting of the court's notorious Citizens United ruling allowing money to overwhelm our electoral process.
A century later in a state called Utah, the ghost of Montana-style corruption is being resurrected. Despite the Salt Lake Chamber publicly acknowledging a recent "come to Jesus" moment about the economic liability of our serious air-pollution problem, a powerful arm of the chamber, the Utah Mining and Manufacturing associations, are having their own "come to Satan" moment. They agree we have an air-pollution problem we don't have enough of it.
Using anti-environmental storm trooper Sen. Margaret Dayton (who thinks the Environmental Protection Agency's existence is illegal), the mining and manufacturing "Empire" struck back at Utah's environmental community for two successful challenges to industry permits. The death star emerged in the form of SB21, which "reforms" the DEQ's citizen boards, if by reform you mean turning them into industry rubber stamps (a la the Montana Legislature of 1906).
Already, the chair of the state Air Quality Board, which is supposed to protect public health from air pollution, is an employee of Kennecott. Dayton's "reform" eliminates guaranteed seats for physicians and environmental experts on the boards.
No attempt was made to hide the incestuous relationship between the polluters and Dayton. Industry lobbyists wrote the bill, sat on both sides of her as she presented it to the House Natural Resources Committee, then Dayton turned most of her time over to the lobbyists. They gave reasons why the bill was needed and how environmentalists had been invited to help craft the bill, if by "helping" you mean fought it tooth and nail.
Constituents of Dayton emailed her objections to the bill and received direct and immediate replies to their concerns from those lobbyists with nary a word from Dayton herself. Can you say brazenly incestuous? Why doesn't Dayton abandon the last vestige of pretense and just have the DEQ move in with Kennecott?
Why not raise state revenue by selling advertising rights to the state Radiation Control Board? The EnergySolutions Radiation Control Board has a nice ring to it.
SB21 sailed through the Legislature and Gov. Gary Herbert, despite his "commitment to clean air," did nothing to stop it.
SB21 is just the latest of the state's anti-environmental, anti-public health, anti-science milestones that have been achieved by blurring the lines between government and corporations. Salt Lake County already violates national air-quality standards, and our biggest polluter, Kennecott, got the green light to pollute even more. Numerous government officials testified on the mining giant's behalf at the DAQ hearing.
EnergySolutions got the OK to take previously forbidden, "too hot" waste that is blended to be less hot, making a radioactive porridge that is "just right" in that it makes EnergySolutions a lot more money. Don't worry, we'll find some science on that radioactive porridge that confirms it's safe after we've already accepted it.
Alton Coal gave the governor $10,000 and within days Utah's first coal strip mine, at the doorstep of Bryce Canyon, got permitted with an indignant denial of quid pro quo. Our congressional delegation, Rep. Jim Matheson excepted, constantly rails about a dictatorial federal government. And without even a pause, they sponsored legislation to bypass local voters, using the federal government to force feed the sale of critical public watershed in our canyons to a foreign real estate corporation.
Montana's reign of corporate corruption only ended when voters reclaimed their power with a citizen initiative passed in 1912. Last year's citizen rebellion against HB477, which gutted the state's open-records law, offered a taste of what is possible, even in Utah.
Warning to Dayton and the "Empire": Citizens can strike back, too.
Brian Moench is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists. He teaches health and the environment at the University of Utah.