The senior senator from Alaska put it succinctly on the floor of the Senate yesterday: "This is the kind of time when a senator determines who his friends are."
In this case, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) didn't have enough.
By a vote of 70 to 26, the Senate rejected Stevens' proposal to use $7 million in taxpayer funds to help an Alaska pulp mill meet clean- water standards that it has been avoiding for more than seven years.
The money would have gone to the Alaska Pulp Corp. in Sitka, a Japanese-owned company that has operated outside clean-water laws since 1977. The exemptions ran out last year, when the Environmental Protection Agency ruled that the facility was not "unique," as it had claimed, and had to meet the same pollution standards as any other pulp mill.
Stevens said the $7 million grant would purchase a "demonstration" water treatment plant for the mill and save about 2,000 jobs. The company, which says it has a work force of only 500, said it already has spent $66 million to meet environmental standards.
But opponents said the grant would give the company an unfair edge over its competitors, all of which are installing pollution-control equipment at their own expense, and would encourage other industries to seek similar bailouts.
"This is a terrible precedent," said Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), who led the assault. "This precedent says that it pays to defy the law, it pays to delay as long as you can."
The Senate set aside a massive appropriations bill for more than an hour to argue the finer points of the Alaska Pulp bailout.
Stevens said opponents were attempting to protect their own pulp mills, and he accused Gorton of intervening with the EPA to have Alaska Pulp's clean-water exemption withdrawn.
"Until he personally was involved in this process, the word from EPA was that the mill didn't have to comply," Stevens said. "The senator seems to think that my constituents sought this money. I sought the money. I sought the waivers for seven years, and they were granted."
Stevens also said that the wastes generated by the Alaska mill were not creating any water pollution problem, and he suggested that opposition to the grant was initiated by "extreme environmentalists" seeking an end to timber-cutting in the Tongas National Forest.
Opponents countered with statistics showing that Alaska Pulp enjoys a significant federal subsidy through a favorable contract for Tongas timber. According to Gorton, the cheaper timber rate was intended to help the company meet its pollution control obligations.