Montana’s I-186 Not a Mine Killer

Tom Reed of Trout Unlimited, speaking to Silver Bow Kiwanis in Butte.

An issue that appears to be headed to the November ballot is I-186, a citizen initiative that has gotten a lot of widespread support across the state, along with some criticism from here in Butte.

Opponents of I-186 have called the proposal an anti-mining proposal that would kill new mining ventures in Montana.

Not so, says Tom Reed, a writer, fly angler, avid hunter, and the Northwest Director of the Sportsmen’s Conservation Project for the national organization of Trout Unlimited. Reed, and Colin Cooney, a fisheries biologist and TU staffer based in Bozeman, were speakers at last week’s meeting of Silverbow Kiwanis in Butte. I’ll note that Cooney has roots in Butte, and is the son of Montana Lieutenant Governor Mike Cooney. Trout Unlimited is backing the proposal because of the organization’s commitment to preserving and enhancing cold water resources and fisheries.

Reed asserted that I-186 is not an anti-mining measure and he especially points out that the measure, if passed, does not affect any currently operating mines, including expansions of those mines, specifically mentioning Montana Resources of Butte, as an operation that would not be affected by I-186.

What I-186 would do, he says, is “It would give DEQ (Montana Department of Environmental Quality) the tools they need to make good decisions for the environment.”

Essentially, the measure would require all new mines to prove they will remedy any water pollution problems as part of the normal mine reclamation process, without the need for perpetual treatment. Further, it places the burden of proof on the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to find, in writing and based upon clear and convincing evidence, that new mines will not cause perpetual water pollution problems.

There’s kind of a fine line between existing law and the proposed initiative. Existing law requires DEQ to issue permits to new mines if the agency finds, after an evaluation of the permit materials, that the operating permit and reclamation plan will comply with the law, based upon a preponderance of evidence.

It’s not a revolutionary change, but it’s significant.

It isn’t difficult to find examples of modern mining operations that demonstrate the need for strengthening existing law, with the Beal Mountain mine, between Butte and Anaconda, a prime example. The Beal Mountain mine, operated by Pegasus Gold, closed up in 1998. Pegasus Gold was a subsidiary of a Canadian mining company, and when mining ended, the company assets disappeared and the corporation went bankrupt. Since then, taxpayers have spent $13.7 million for reclamation and water treatment, and according to I-186 backers, taxpayers will have to come up with another $39 million for full clean-up of the mine.

Possibly the worst example of a mining operation that left taxpayers holding the bag for remediation is the Zortman-Landusky mine, another Pegasus operation, in the Little Rocky Mountains that has cost taxpayers $27.5 million so far, and the forecast is that it will cost another $1 -2 million annually to treat acid mine waste—in perpetuity. Perpetuity, incidentally, is another word for forever.

Reed said, “We think DEQ should have the ability to say no to bad mining proposals.”

Colin Cooney, of Trout Unlmited, making a point of past mining problems.

Reed and Cooney cited some states that have enacted similar legislation in recent years, such as Michigan and New Mexico, and they point out that mining permits continue to be issued that meet the new requirements. Another state, Maine, just recently enacted stronger legislation, though it’s still too soon to determine how that state’s law is working.

Reed refutes claims that more stringent requirements contained in the initiative will make new mining operations impossible, and commented, “I think we’re training kids at Montana Tech that can work with it.”

There are some costs involved with implementing I-186, if Montana voters adopt it. A fiscal note to the proposal projects additional costs to DEQ of just over $115 thousand in the first year and increasing to just under $119 thousand by 2021. The costs involve more staff for environmental review of mining permit applications and anticipated litigation.

For more information on the proposal, go to www.yeson186.org.

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