By Ron VandenBoom
Montana Republican Sen. Conrad Burns defended his stand on the Libby asbestos contamination issue Sunday in an interview before the Hill County Republican Lincoln Day Dinner, saying that he was trying to help the residents of Libby before his opponents tried to turn it into a political issue.
"I think Montanans are smart enough to realize they've turned it into a political situation rather than a debate on policy or how we help Libby and how we help those folks that (have) been exposed and are sick from asbestosis," he said.
Burns said he believes that he has "turned the corner" on the issue and that some very positive things came out of Libby.
Burns supported legislation that, according to his opponents, stranded residents of Libby who were sick or could become sick by protecting W. R. Grace Company, the company that owned the plant that made the asbestos, from lawsuits.
He said that actually they were trying to help some people in Libby who were sick but had gone past the statute of limitations and had no health insurance and no way to get health care.
"That's what we were trying to do," he said, adding that the plan was for W.R. Grace to pay the cost so taxpayer dollars would not have to be used.
Burns admitted that some sections in the legislation would have required people filing lawsuits against W. R. Grace to actually be sick before going to court, but "there's no sense in a person who is not sick, but just lives in Libby, going to court and plugging the courts up."
Burns blamed the trial lawyers for creating the controversy over the proposed legislation because limiting the lawsuits only to sick people "sort of cuts into their paycheck."
"And they've found a way to open me up a little bit," Burns said. "But basically if we could take the energy from Libby and Lincoln County, and spread that energy across the state of Montana, this issue would be over."
Burns described Montanans as very astute and said he is encouraged by what he is seeing now.
"They have seen this as nothing but a political situation," he said. "It does nothing to help the folks in Libby, Montana."
The farm economy and Endangered Species Act are also issues Burns addressed before the dinner.
"We've responded every year since we've had this price squeeze," he said, referring to agriculture. "Opening markets, taking away sanctions are some of the answer, but it's not the entire answer."
Burns said that right now agriculture is not getting its share of the consumer dollar.
"I've said that all along and how we fix that, that's a very tough situation," he said.
He noted that Congress has reacted to this last year and the year before and if this continues to be the case this year they will react again very positively.
"Does that guarantee the farmer out here is going to get rich no," he said. "But it does get us to the next season and it also sends a strong message to the financial community that we're not going to let agriculture just float away into oblivion and we're not going to support it."
Burns referred to the Conservation Reserve Program as part of the problem noting that small towns like Havre and farm communities in the Golden Triangle have far too many acres in CRP.
"When there's no production, no activity, it hurts our cities and towns in rural Montana," he said.
He noted that the program has not done what it was intended to do.