My opposition to the Holcim Company’s proposal to burn more than one million tires every year at a cement plant at the headwaters of the Missouri River started as a no-brainer.
I have three children growing up
downwind of that plant. I float those rivers. Several friends work
with the advocacy group, Montanans Against Toxic Burning. I went to
meetings, read literature, was persuaded by arguments exposing
shaky economics, health risks, degradation of local environment and
I attended a public meeting in a
Manhattan, Mont., school, where more than 75 people spoke against
the tire-burning proposal. Only four or five, all with ties to the
cement plant, spoke in favor.
A petition signed by nearly
100 area physicians circulated. The Bozeman City Commission sent a
letter urging the state’s Department of Environmental Quality
(DEQ) to pursue a complete environmental impact statement; finally,
the state agreed. Case closed.
Or was it? I began making
calls, reading documents, asking pointed questions, and that's when
things started to get muddy. Not just dense and complicated, as
you'd expect, but muddy to the point that, despite my leanings, I
began to question my early conclusions. Much of the opposition has
been tied to questions about scientific data, such as wind pattern
data from Great Falls, Mont., more than 100 miles north of the
cement plant. Opponents have also fastened on whether this sort of
permit would be allowed in Switzerland, where Holcim is
I first called one of the Gallatin County
Commissioners who leans towards environmental stewardship. He said
he’d read the reports, gone to the meetings and visited the
cement plant. "But I don't see the evidence." Next I called the
DEQ. I asked him if the grassroots opposition had given him pause.v
"We're not idiots," he said. "We are going to make sure our math is
right. We're revisiting the weather modeling. We're taking the
health risk concerns brought up by doctors very seriously. We know
that, no matter which way our decision goes, we'll likely end up in
court. We need to get it right."
Next, I called the cement
plant manager, who quickly said, "People are right to ask hard
questions. But they need to accept facts when they get them." He
said that at the hearing someone asked if this would be allowed in
"The answer is yes. Tires, along with other
waste stream products, are burned routinely in cement kilns there."
He pointed to cement plants in Texas and Oklahoma burning tires and
other wastes, that had undergone just this sort of public scrutiny,
and that are subject to stringent controls, that now receive
environmental awards for reducing their emissions.
Something else started to bother me. Undercurrents of irony and
hypocrisy kept bubbling up in this stewpot of controversy. It turns
out that about one-third of the cement produced at this plant, some
90,000 tons, is sold within 100 miles. This "tainted" product is
briskly being poured into the foundations of new homes where it
supports the construction economy spurred by the quality-of-lifers
coming to the Gallatin Valley. Yet these are the same folks
contractors are so worried will stop building if they get a whiff
of sullied environment.
For another, the "pristine" air
and landscape touted by tire-burning opponents may not be all that
it's cracked up to be. "The numbers in the Gallatin Valley aren't
really that great," my DEQ contact said. "Agricultural crop burning
alone puts more pollution in the air than the cement plant ever
will. Not to mention improperly vented wood stoves. Not to mention
diesel fumes from all the trucks and SUVs everyone
In the end, I'm put off by the stridency,
exaggeration and selective reasoning in this debate, including that
of some of my friends. Doctors point to the likelihood of leukemia
and learning disabilities; contractors predict the end of their
business; activists conjure images of an 84-mile-long truck convoy
bringing waste tires to the valley. This sky-is-falling outcry
undercuts what is a real and valid debate.
certainly, cause for concern. I remain worried about tire-burning,
especially coming from a foreign-owned company with a
less-than-stellar environmental record. I don't entirely trust the
Montana Department of Environmental Quality, which, over recent
years, appears to have evolved into more of a "rubber-stamp"
agency, and away from acting as environmental watchdog.
conclusion is that the light of truth is a narrow beam indeed, and
what it illuminates depends entirely on who holds it. What's more,
it's disquieting to find that I'm just as prone as the next person
to see only the small circle of illumination that confirms my