Jailed activist claims mining industry retaliation
By PAUL KOBERSTEIN
WALLACE, Idaho -- Barbara Miller wore prison green as she spoke from inside the Shoshone County Jail.
"I'm a political prisoner of the state of Idaho," she said defiantly. "I was put here by the good old boys and the mining industry in Shoshone County."
Miller, executive director of the Silver Valley People's Action Coalition (SVPAC), is known nationally as the leading local advocate for a thorough and effective cleanup of mining waste in the Coeur d'Alene Basin. She was sent to jail for five days in late March by Judge Dan McGee for minor violations of a child custody decree between her and her ex-husband, Ed Miller. Miller's attorney, Michael Branstetter, has repeatedly and aggressively used McGee's court to score legal victories against the former wife. Twice, motions seeking jail time for alleged violations of visitation rules have been granted.
Branstetter, a lawyer in private practice, is known locally as an attorney representing ASARCO and Hecla, two large mining companies in the Silver Valley, as well as smaller mining interests. Branstetter also represents the school district in Wallace that for years has denied that pollution on its school grounds is hazardous or has caused childhood health problems.
Barbara Miller's bitterness is compounded by her suspicion that mining companies are footing her ex-husband's legal bills as "payback" for her environmental work, though she has no proof. Branstetter did not return telephone calls. Neither did Ed Miller, a bar owner in Kellogg.
Judge McGee has stripped Miller of her house, almost all of her other financial assets, and placed a $14,000 court judgment on her head. She says she can't afford to pay the judgment on her $12,000 annual salary. The ex-husband now owns the house and will personally collect thousands from the court judgment. McGee also jailed Barbara Miller in 2000 for a similar minor custody violation, and in 1999 sent her to jail for voting in the wrong precinct, a charge rarely if ever leveled in Idaho history. Barbara Miller maintains she was innocent of all charges and accuses her ex-husband of domestic assault.
According to court documents and police records, Ed Miller assaulted Barbara Miller in their home in 1998, an event that triggered the divorce. A son witnessed the attack, and three police officers who responded to the incident reported cuts and bruises on Barbara's head and arm. The report notes that Barbara Miller suffered a bump on the back of her head, a cut on her lower outer right hand and a bump on the front of her head just above the left eye brow.
"Ed Miller came out of the rec room as I was going up the stairs," Barbara Miller said. "I recall him throwing me down on the stairs, hard and then shoving my head into the wall a couple of times. There was an iron railing on the wall. I think my head was shoved against it at least once by Ed Miller. It was very frightening."
And yet Judge McGee dismissed the ex-husband from jail a few hours after his arrest on grounds of "no probable cause." The case was never prosecuted. Legal experts contacted by Cascadia Times say in Idaho it's rare for domestic violence cases to be dropped without a hearing, especially in cases with physical evidence (bruises) and a witness.
The court system failing her, Barbara Miller says she was left with no option but to file a civil suit against her ex-husband for the assault. That case goes to trial in September, says Miller's attorney Brit Groom.
Miller formed the People's Action Coalition in 1986, fighting for a more extensive cleanup of mining waste in the Silver Valley. Last fall, the Ford Foundation honored Miller with its "Leadership for a Changing World Award," and a $130,000 grant to support the Coalition's work. In early March, Boise State University recognized Miller as one of its "Women Making History"
Miller says she is not opposed to mining in the basin. Her father worked in the mines. Miller's top priority is the establishment of the Community Lead Health Project in Silver Valley, where lead-poisoned children, former workers and residents could for the first time obtain diagnosis and treatment for lead poisoning and other health problems.
Support for Miller's cause is growing around the Northwest.
"She's been blamed for every ill in North Idaho mining country since Superfund arrived," writes Dave Oliveria in the Spokane Spokesman-Review. "The restless natives cheer when she occasionally lands in jail for petty offenses. The Barbashers even tried to bushwhack her nomination for a $130,000 Ford Foundation award. It didn't work. Miller and her People's Action Coalition got the award for fighting to rid Shoshone County of toxic waste. Saint? Sinner? Dunno. But she's got guts."
"This is the kind of legal action businesses use in an effort to financially and emotionally destroy people like Barbara who believe in democracy and participate in our democratic way of life," says Darlene Schanfald of Port Angeles, who has been fighting for a Superfund cleanup of an old Rayonier paper mill in her community. "What does this say about a corporation or anyone involved in trying to hurt Barbara that would use a child, in this case Barbara's daughter, as a pawn."
"She is a champion on a mountain of pollution of the likes found nowhere else in the world," says former SV PAC board member Tina Paddock of McMinnville, Ore. "Local community leaders ignore the fact that hundreds of people are still being lead poisoned, exposed to arsenic, cadmium and continue to suffer health consequences for the past one hundred years of pollution."
"When will these attacks end?" Paddock said.
"Barbara needs powerful attorneys to help her fight this harassment," said Jeri Gillespie, an activist in Okanogan, Wash. "She also needs more support from the environmental community, to help her deal with the negative impacts on her emotions and sense of well-being."
Edie Schultz, president of the Silver Valley People's Action Coalition, said the case against Barbara Miller is part of a "vicious cycle carefully put together by the mining companies and in my opinion corrupt legal system in Shoshone County. "(Our) mission is to have a healthy community for children to grow up in and not have the threat of toxic contamination."