HELENA — Gov. Brian Schweitzer said Monday that his administration won’t spend $600,000 in waste-cleanup funds earmarked by the Legislature for a private construction firm, calling them a Republican political payoff.
“Somehow a large, political contributor decided that those large, political contributions ought to be leveraged and earmarked directly into his own pocketbook,” the Democratic governor said. “The answer is, ‘No, we will not (pay the money),’ and ‘Yes, the money will remain in the bank.’ ”
The money, inserted into a major budget bill during the final days of the 2009 Legislature, had been intended to help Swank Enterprises cover its legal share of a $32 million hazardous-waste cleanup at a polluted timber and rail yard in northeast Kalispell.
Sen. Greg Barkus, R-Kalispell, who pushed to include the money in the bill, argued that Swank had nothing to do with causing the pollution and shouldn’t be stuck paying for the cleanup. The company had bought property at the waste site in 1995, before the extent of the pollution was known.
Company President Dean Swank and Barkus each sent letters to state officials this summer and fall, requesting that the money be forwarded to the construction firm.
Schweitzer said Monday his administration won’t pay, noting that the budget bill says the state “may use up to $600,000” for cleanup at the Kalispell site for “grants to community partners” to help with cleanup costs.
He called the requests “an extraordinarily brazen and bold attempt to hijack the people’s money.”
“Just because they’re big political donors or they have big political influence doesn’t make them more important than the rest of Montana,” he said of Swank Enterprises, a construction firm with offices in Kalispell and Valier.
Swank called the governor’s comments about the company “blasphemous,” and that his past support for Republican candidates shouldn’t be an issue.
“Our company is not a bad company,” he said. “We hire a lot of people and pay our taxes, and unfortunately, I guess, I’m associated with the Republican Party.”
Swank issued a statement later Monday saying his company has done nothing to deserve such criticism from the governor.
“To be maligned in this fashion is outrageous behavior on the part of the governor,” his statement said.
Barkus also said Monday any claim that Swank is attempting to cash in its contributions for political favors “is absolutely not the truth.”
Company president Swank has made numerous contributions to the state Republican Party and Republican candidates in the past decade, including Barkus, U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, former U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns and 2008 gubernatorial candidate Roy Brown.
Swank Enterprises bought a 5-acre piece of property at the old Kalispell Post and Timber Co. yard in 1995, intending to use it to store equipment and supplies.
The former timber yard and oil refinery site is polluted by years of dumping or spilling of petroleum products, penta, dioxin and other pollutants from the 1920s to the 1960s. The pollutants have made their way into the soil and groundwater.
BNSF Railway is responsible for 70.5 percent of the cleanup costs; the state is liable for 27.5 percent and Swank 2 percent.
Dean Swank said when the company agreed to accept 2 percent of the liability, the cleanup costs were estimated to be a few million dollars and no more than $10 million. The cost has since risen to an estimated $32 million.
The company already has paid nearly $68,000 in remedial costs and no cleanup has occurred, Swank said. The company’s liability for the cleanup could exceed $800,000, he said.
In early April, Barkus persuaded a Senate committee to amend the 2009 budget bill to earmark $600,000 from a public cleanup fund to cover Swank’s share of the costs.
The amendment later was stricken from the bill, but the money was reinserted during a House-Senate conference committee on the budget measure during the Legislature’s final days in late April. The change included a one-sentence amendment that says the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation may use up to $600,000 of the cleanup funds for “grants to community partners for the purpose of furthering or expediting remediation or redevelopment activities.”
Barkus and Swank said in letters this summer that the language intended to set aside the money for Swank Enterprises.