Saturday, December 24, 2011

Mining interests weigh heavily in Montana Senate race

Montana's sole U.S. Congressman, Republican Denny Rehberg, is running to unseat first-term Senator from Montana, Jon Tester, a Democrat. Today's New York Times includes a feature discussing how mining interests in Montana are weighing in on the rase. Rehberg is in his sixth term, and the story discusses and illustrates the pro-mining reputation he has gained during that time. It notes that Tester has hardly been a foe of the mining industry--but his advocacy of mining interests pales in comparison to Rehberg's.
Mr. Tester and other Montana politicians often support legislation that would benefit the coal and minerals mining industry, a bit employer here, or oppose federal mandates that mine owners find objectionable. But it is Mr. Rehberg who has been the most ardent advocate, presenting a case study in how a lawmaker can build his national profile--and campaign war chest--by championing an industry with deep pockets and political clout.

He has repeatedly criticized federal mine safety officials over the past year, charging that many inspection complaints are job killers or ridiculing others as trivial.
The story is chock full of quotes from both sides of the pro-mining/pro-environment divide. One of the most colorful is an official with the United Mine Workers Union who calls Rehberg "more a spokesperson for the industry than a lawmaker." Needless to say, Rehberg is drawing in significant donations from mining interests.

The story explains mining's significance in Montana's history, as well as its significance to the state's contemporary economy. To a great extent, the story reflects the perennial tension of rural states and regions: jobs v. the environment. (Related posts are here and here). But another angle is jobs v. safety, and the story details Rehberg's criticism of the Mine Safety and Health Agency.

Illustrating well the significance of mining to parts of the Montana economy is Stillwater County, home to Nye, the story's dateline. Nye is an unincorporated community in a county with an economy based nearly entirely on mining, making it one of the most prosperous counties in the state. I detailed the county's economic fortunes in this article, which illustrates spatial inequality in Montana and its impact on health and human services. Stillwater County has a population of just 9,1117, but a high median household income ($53,637) and a very low poverty rate (9.3%). This degree of affluence is unusual for a such a sparsely populated county, and it is no doubt a testament to the good jobs associated with mining, as well as taxes paid by the extraction industry.

But mining is also accompanied by human costs that offset some of its economic benefits, and the New York Times story details these, including black lung disease. (Rehberg, as chair of the House Appropriations subcommittee dealing with mine safety pushed a provision that would block enforcement of a regulation that would have reduced by half the amount of ambient coal dust permitted in a mine. The dust is the cause of black lung disease). Indeed, the reason for the Nye dateline is the October death there, at the Stillwater mine, of a 42-year-old miner when his loader ran into a steel bar protruding from the mine wall.

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