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Synthesis/Regeneration 7-8   (Summer 1995)

Video and Electromagnetic Media:
The Case of Ross Electric

by Will Snodgrass, Missoulians for a Clean Environment

When hazardous waste handlers appear in a community, it is a good idea to check various back doors to see who let them in. When checking, bring your video cameras. Chambers of commerce, government offices, and "economic development" agencies which do their bidding, are good places to start looking.

In 1992, a notoriously bad PCB incinerator operation, Ross Electric Co., attempted to bail out of its Superfund site location and related fines in Chehalis, Washington. They chose Missoula, Montana as their next best place to dump. The Ross family's back-door entrance into Missoula was facilitated by a host of willing agencies, including the Missoula Economic Development Corp. (funded and guided by the County Commissioners) and the City/County Health Department (overseen by the County Commissioners), all of whom had prior knowledge of Ross' abysmal environmental record.

The agencies knew the Ross Electric history of violations, dump and run. But none of them bothered to alert Missoula citizens about Ross' arrival in this already heavily polluted Rocky Mountain town of 50,000. Ross Electric Corp. had already begun to build their facility in Missoula without the necessary state air discharge permit! Not one official sounded the warning. Only through a tip-off to a young AP reporter did this community learn of the planned PCB incinerator in its back yard.

Two activists with a nose for inside information picked up a video camera and paid a visit to the Missoula Office of Community Development where the director was scrambling to explain how the Ross Electric PCB incinerator managed to slip through the cracks of OCD oversight. In the heat of the moment the director talked, on camera.

From there, the activists paid a visit to the office of the local building inspector who allegedly told a city councilperson that the Ross building permit was never forwarded to his office. However, with the camcorder resting on the building inspector's counter, it recorded the clerk's actions including her call to the city attorney, the pulling of the Ross permit from the file, and the exchange of $1.00 and a receipt for the permit copy. Now, there was enough information on tape to prevent a complete cover-up from taking place.

The Coalition Against Ross Electric, known as CARE, formed and began meeting. Turnout was high, including citizens of all ages. The first meeting decided that action was needed. Twelve people met the next morning, armed with video cameras, plenty of batteries, and plenty of tape. Their destination was the office of Dusty Deschamps, county attorney, where citizens' phone calls had gone unreturned.

Gathering in the front entrance of the Missoula County Courthouse that morning were two camera operators, and citizen activists. They moved directly into the county attorney's office in search of answers, where they were told that the person in charge of the Ross deal, Deputy County Attorney Martha McClain, was "not in yet."

Ms. McClain had apparently been forewarned of the citizens' greeting party. She pushed her way through the group, avoiding questions during her brusque disappearance into her back office.

Local citizens followed her. Their well- put questions continued, on camera. The deputy county attorney's answers were vague and few, also on camera. Soon enough, the sheriff's men arrived in holstered grimness, also on camera. Escorted out by side-armed deputies, senior citizens exclaimed, "These people are terrible!" It is one thing to be driven from the official turfdom by the sheriff and quite another to be so herded under light of videotape.

C O N T I N U E D    B E L O W...

Video tips...

Video cameras are powerful tools in today's environmental struggle. Their presence can positively change the course of events and clarify the history of environmental, economic and political transactions.

If you plan on using video in environmental work, familiarize yourself with the equipment. Choose a tape format which gives broadcast quality picture. The 8 mm, Hi-8 mm, and S-VHS cameras will accomplish that. Obviously, the large and expensive 3/4" commercial equipment will provide the best picture quality. But the unobtrusive consumer cameras have the benefit of cost and small size. While of lower quality, the VHS home camcorder will do the work.

Be prepared. Make sure you have plenty of quality tape. Bring a spare battery or two, and keep the camera lens clean. Carry the camera like a familiar tool, in an unobtrusive manner. Be direct. Avoid an invasive posture, when possible. In those situations where the issue is hot, turn the camera on before you enter into the office or environment. This may force dialogue. If industry players/officials tell you to turn the camera off, you will have their refusal on tape.

Frame your shots tightly when shooting individuals. Keep their eyes in the top third of the screen. Make sure you shoot everything and everyone present. Light and audio are weak links. If you are using the on-board camera microphone make sure you get close and have ample light. Make copies of your camera tapes. Share and review them with others. You will be amazed at what you learn.

Video is like fishing. At times it is intuitive. Often one cannot see or measure its effects. Yet video is powerful. Utilize videotaped assets like chess pieces. Don't play all your cards at once. Measure the situation you face, look, listen, intuit, and distribute your videotaped information to those people and places where it will generate the most impact.

Video can be used to bust a situation loose or to gently nudge. How powerful is it? In some cases, you don't even have to air the tapes...

Empowered by the protective lens of not one but two Canon camcorders, CARE in force proceeded to the county commissioners. The sheriff's men retreated, suddenly aware that camcorders are dangerous pieces in the electronic warfare game.

Then, as if by magic, a commissioner appeared—the biggest, baddest one, the commandante of the county. CARE wanted answers and wanted to see all the documents in the house. Soon, the smiling commissioner began talking, with measured political tone. The pressure was on and it could not be washed off. The cameras were taking in every piece of information and some of it was not making sense. Passing the buck efficiently back to the county attorney's office, an official announced that the Ross Electric file would be made available from that attorney's office "within the hour."

In the interim, CARE proceeded to the office of Mayor Dan Kemmis who demonstrated, in flight, the basis of his nickname, "the stealth mayor." He was pursued by 68-year-old CARE member Alice Campbell, former head of the Missoula Democratic Party. Other CARE members and the two camera operators soon caught up with Alice who had the mayor's coattails nearly in her grasp.

The mayor ducked the real issue of Ross Electric's physical presence in Missoula by saying he'd allow "no PCB contamination..." Mayor Kemmis was beginning to sound more and more like those incinerator engineers who say "PCBs can be burned safely." Again, political posturing and jargon at their finest were captured on videotape.

CARE marched en masse back to the county courthouse where the Ross file was laid out for all to see. And there a sharp-eyed CARE member, John, spotted incriminating printed evidence among the pages present. CARE's videographers taped the entire file, on the spot, with special care taken in recording the most incriminating piece. Once the entire file was recorded onto videotape, the county attorney's office agreed to let us have the file copied at a local shop.

One final videotaped interview was planned at the office of the Missoula Economic Development Corporation, an outfit which initially helped usher Ross Electric into Missoula. John and I entered that office and very directly pursued a videotaped interview with the director. The camera was simply turned on, placed on a table, and aimed at the subject. Over the course of the next hour, more crucial information was captured, unraveling the mystery of Ross Electric's entrance into the community. The video crew moved pounced on leads and stayed one jump ahead of any county damage control. With the exception of back-room transactions, CARE had videotaped major portions of the Ross Electric scenario. Public officials knew the issue could not be buried.

Greenpeace provided copies of their excellent anti-incineration video, "Rush to Burn." CARE arranged to have it shown on MCAT, Missoula Community Access Television. To promote the program, CARE members manned all major Missoula intersections on the day of the show. They carried large placards which read "Stop Ross! MCAT, Ch 7, 7 pm!"

This action announced the air time of "Rush to Burn" to thousands of Missoula commuters and demonstrated a solid street-level unity. Many community access stations allow broadcast of a program only once or twice in any 13-week period. In Missoula, activists arranged repeated showings of "Rush to Burn" by adding local footage to it, thereby making it a new and different production which could be rebroadcast again within a few days or weeks.

Another Missoula group—Media Campaign Against Ross—also worked the local airwaves with a grassroots commercial radio campaign. Community support and donations were strong.

Ross Electric was driven from Missoula, Montana. They tried to relocate 30 miles west in the town of Superior. Residents there did not want them. Ross Electric is currently located in the small eastern Montana town of Baker. A vicious, divisive struggle there has resulted in violence, splitting that economically depressed community where Ross Electric now maneuvers for a state permit. Ross Electric was never fined for its original violation of Montana state law (e.g. "...build, modify, or operate. . ." in Missoula without a valid permit). Residents of Baker have talked about "briefcases full of money" carried about by members of the Ross family.

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