Initiative would reject mines destined to be perpetual polluters

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Backers of ballot Initiative 186 contend that any new hardrock mine unable to provide “clear and convincing evidence” that its reclamation would not require perpetual treatment of polluted water should not receive a permit from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

They say Montana’s clean water is a resource more precious than gold, silver or copper.

Proponents of I-186 say taxpayers often end up paying for reclamation that includes permanent treatment of water contaminated by hardrock mining.

Opponents of the initiative, including the Montana Mining Association and Montana Contractors’ Association, counter that I-186 is vague, unnecessary and could hamstring new hardrock mining investment that is a key revenue source for the state and its residents.

“I think our communities where there are proposed mines are going to suffer for it,” said Tammy Johnson, executive director of the Montana Mining Association.

David Brooks is executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited, one of the organizations backing I-186.

“This is not about shutting down mining,” Brooks said. “This is about helping Montana lead the way with more responsible mining.”

He said new hardrock mines can be designed and operated so perpetual treatment of polluted water isn’t necessary.

“We know it’s possible,” Brooks said.

Backers of I-186 cite the legacy of hardrock mines that have left pollution requiring millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded reclamation and treatment of waters contaminated by acid mine drainage and other contaminants, including heavy metals.

The Beal Mountain Mine fanfare in the early 1990s described the open pit, cyanide heap leach gold mine near Anaconda as a state-of-the-art, environmentally friendly operation. The collaboration between Pegasus Gold and the Forest Service to launch the mine garnered accolades. Beal Mountain Mine became a showpiece.

But then things started to unravel, both at the mine and for Pegasus, which ultimately went bankrupt.

The $6.2 million bond posted by Pegasus was woefully inadequate to address pollution at the site, including cyanide and selenium. After Pegasus went belly up, taxpayers were, and are, left to pay for ongoing reclamation and interventions to limit water pollution at the site in German Gulch, where a creek supports a key population of westslope cutthroat trout.

Individuals and groups supporting I-186 cite the mine as a cautionary tale. They also reference the Zortman Landusky open pit mine, another ill-fated Pegasus operation requiring ongoing treatment of polluted water.

Johnson with the Montana Mining Association laments that legacy.

“The Pegasus bankruptcy was unfortunate,” she said. “It was unfortunate for all of us, the mining industry, the communities, the environment.”

There are other non-Pegasus mines, including the still-operating Golden Sunlight mine near Whitehall, that will require perpetual treatment of polluted waters.

Johnson said the industry and the regulations governing it have changed in the years since the Pegasus bankruptcy. She said existing laws are stringent enough that a proposed mine anticipating perpetual treatment of polluted water would not get permits.

“That simply isn’t true when it comes to permanent pollution of water,” said Jim Jensen, executive director of the Montana Environmental Information Center, a supporter of I-186.

Cary Hegreberg, executive director of the Montana Contractors’ Association, weighed in.

“It’s our position that Montana already has a credible, thorough and rigorous environmental process in place,” he said.

Brooks offered a different view.

“There is no law right now that allows DEQ to deny a permit for a mine that will require permanent treatment of water pollution,” he said.

Johnson said the initiative’s call for “clear and convincing evidence,” along with some terms not yet fully defined, could snare new mines in prolonged litigation.

Jensen countered that proposed mines frequently end up in litigation anyway.

“Sometimes mines litigate and sometimes citizens’ organizations or environmental organizations challenge permits issued by the state,” he said.

Hegreberg said ballot initiatives are a clumsy way to make public policy because they don’t provide voters a full sense of a proposed measure’s pros and cons or its unintended consequences.

Jensen said citizen ballot initiatives have a long history in a state where mining interests once controlled the Legislature. And he noted that the mining industry backed I-147 in 2004 in an unsuccessful effort to overturn a 1998 ballot initiative that banned new cyanide leach gold or silver mines in Montana.

Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at dadams@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4407.

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