A Flathead Valley, Montana, based independent journal of observation, analysis, and opinion.

Archives, February 2007

20 February 2007

Would this have happened before 9/11?

Updated 9 March 2007. The Post Office in Kalispell hit the panic button on 17 February when a delivery van driver spotted a package that was leaking a silvery liquid — mercury, an elemental metal twice as dense as iron that melts at -37.89°F. According to news reports, two to three ounces had leaked from an old wall thermometer that was damaged in transit to Kalispell. After thinking about this, I’m inclined to believe that the instrument might have been a mercury filled barometer, which would be more likely to leak.

I would have scooped the mercury into a bottle (there are other methods). At room temperature, it’s not harmful unless swallowed; just wear latex gloves and exercise some common sense. The more difficult task would have been the paperwork to follow.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, the building at Meridian was evacuated. A hazardous materials team was summoned, bringing fire engines and an ambulance to the post office. And even though mercury doesn’t boil unless heated to over 600°F, an instrument to measure the concentration of mercury vapor in air was flown in from Wisconsin (the alleged closest location of that kind of instrument) along with its 3-man operating crew (a Boeing 777 only requires a 2-man cockpit crew). Mercury does have a low vapor pressure — store it under water in a glass container, or eventually it will evaporate — but that small an amount in a building as large as the post office for so short a period of time would not have produced a dangerous level of mercury vapor. And in fact, it did not produce a detectable level of mercury vapor.

My reaction? Osama Bin Laden wins again. If this had happened prior to 9/11 and the anthrax scares, the spill would have been handled in-house, and the incident would have been considered routine. But not now. We are now so spooked by anything out of the ordinary, and so bedeviled by an educational system that leaves few with much practical knowledge of chemistry, that a teaspoon of flour in an envelope, or a thermometer’s measure of mercury, can cause public employees to think the end of the world is at hand.

This was a profile in panic, not a profile in courage. Anyone who goes to court on a disability claim related to this does not want me on the jury.


9 February 2007

Vote by mail bill moving at a snail’s pace

LC-1503 is back on hold, meaning that political negotiations on the matter are underway. My information is that enough problems have been raised — some theoretical, others practical and identified during the last election — that instead of requiring a vote-by-mail system, Rep. Sands’ bill will set up what has been described to me as a “summer study.”

That could mean a commission with a mandate to produce a report for action in the 2009 legislature. Or it could authorize the Secretary of State to order a vote-by-mail system following the recommendations of a study group or commission.

If a commission, or study group, or whatever the group is called, is established, look for the proponents of vote-by-mail to try to stack it with members who favor vote-by-mail. In my opinion, Sands, et al, have made up their minds and will view a study group as simply another hoop to jump through on their way to eliminating Election Day as we know it.


1 February 2007

Mail ballot update

LC1503 was still in the drafting stage this morning, having been returned to the bill drafting department following a legal review. The request for the bill was submitted on 4 December, so this is taking a fair amount of time for a bill that does not deal with revenue.

I think two things are happening. First, the parties promoting this radical revision of elections in Montana still are not fully in agreement. Second, I think Sands is loath to introduce the measure until consensus is reached in order to lower the probability that it will be significantly changed during markup. The likely intent is to introduce the bill with considerable fanfare, then streamroll it through the legislature with a minimum of debate.

* * * * *

Beginning tomorrow, all entries on the campaign to eliminate Election Day as we know it will appear on my Mail Ballot page. I’ll announce the journal entry on this page and provide a link to the mail ballot section.

School levy election

It looks like Kalispell’s school board is going for a half-million-dollar levy for the high schools this spring. I’m voting for it, but I suspect that getting it approved in a low turnout spring election will be difficult. Many people connected with the schools believe that low turnout elections are good because school district employees and parents can have a disproportionate effect on the outcome. But in such a situation, any determined group — tax haters, for example — can organize themselves, generate a high turnout of their group, and also have a disproportinate impact on the outcome. A mail ballot might increase turnout a bit, but the best solution is moving the election to the general election.