Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer announced Monday that the state will not give Swank Enterprises $600,000 for an environmental cleanup at a site the company owns in Evergreen.
Schweitzer called a press conference in Helena to denounce the appropriation approved by the Legislature earlier this year as a “bailout” that Swank received primarily because of campaign contributions to Republicans.
He said the move was part of his administration’s efforts to tighten state spending.
“We have been challenging our directors to find additional places where we can lock down money,” he said.
And that includes the provision in House Bill 2 that said the Department of Natural Resources “may use up to $600,000 of Reliance Refinery Cleanup funds (from the Orphan Share Fund) for grants to community partners for the purpose of furthering or expediting remediation or redevelopment activities.”
Schweitzer asserted that the bill does not specify that Swank should receive the money, and he emphasized that provision says the state “may” spend the money.
State Sen. Greg Barkus, R-Kalispell, secured the provision with the intent that the funding go to Swank to cover most of the company’s share in cleaning up a site in Evergreen that was polluted decades ago.
In 1995, Swank paid $5,000 for land in an area that was owned by the now-defunct Kalispell Pole and Timber Co., the Reliant Refinery and Yale Oil Corp.
Dean Swank, president of Swank Enterprises, agreed to a consent decree in 2006 that obligated him to pay for 2 percent of cleanup costs on the three-acre parcel, which would have been $200,000 at the time. However, the state conducted additional studies that increased cleanup cost estimates to a point where Swank’s obligation has grown to $640,000.
Barkus defended the special appropriation soon after it was passed in spring 2009.
“I’m simply trying to right a wrong. I don’t think that somebody who buys a property and doesn’t do anything to pollute the property should be required to pay $640,000 in remediation,” Barkus said at the time.
Schweitzer dismissed that justification, calling the appropriation a “brazen and bold attempt to hijack the people’s money.”
He said Swank was aware that there was an environmental liability attached to the property and underestimated what the liability would be.
Contacted at his office, Dean Swank said he already was aware the state probably was going to deny the payment.
“I don’t know why [Schweitzer] had to have a press conference to do it, and to rake our company over the coals publicly,” Swank said.
He noted that two other entities with cleanup obligations — Klinger Lumber and Montana Mokko — did not sign consent decrees and the state released them from any financial responsibilities.
Swank also took exception to the governor suggesting that taxpayer money would be used for the appropriation, because the Orphan Fund is supported by an industrial tax specifically for environmental cleanups.
The Department of Natural Resources and Conservation is using Orphan Fund money to cover its share of cleanup costs at the site, Swank said.
Swank said he believes that the amount of money spent studying the site, and the estimated $32 million overall cleanup cost so far are “ridiculous.”
Schweitzer’s office provided reporters with a list of $23,000 in contributions Swank owners and employees have provided to Republican candidates since 2000.
“We had some members acting like they were members of Congress” in extending an “earmark” to Swank, Schweitzer said.
“It’s unfortunate that the governor chose to make a partisan issue” of the matter, Swank said. “It makes me wonder if I had given the same amount of money to the Democratic Party, would I have had the same problem ... We haven’t been bad citizens and we haven’t done things wrong. I don’t know what we did to deserve that.”
Reporter Jim Mann may be reached at 758-4407 or by e-mail at email@example.com