In the previous episode we began looking into a couple issues affecting current and proposed
mining in Montana, the Bad Actor law and Initiative 186. Both have elicited strong reactions
from conservationists and mining advocates alike and the facts can be hard to come by. In this
episode we’ll look deeper into I-186, an initiative that will be on the ballot in November.
186 is an initiative aimed at eliminating pollution from new hard rock mines in Montana. It was
drafted by the group Yes for Responsible Mining, a consortium of environmental organizations
including Trout Unlimited and the Montana Environmental Information Center, among others.
They say the measure will protect both water quality and taxpayers by forcing new mines to
show "clear and convincing evidence" that they will not create "in perpetuity" water-quality
issues. In essence, this initiative allows the DEQ to deny permits to new mines that will require
permanent water treatment.
So, what is an initiative? An initiative is a proposal of a new law placed on the ballot by petition.
Citizens can have an initiative placed on the ballot by securing the signatures of a given
percentage of the populace, where it then must receive a majority vote to be made law. In
Montana, a statutory initiative requires signatures of 5% of the total registered voters, including
those of 5% of the voters in 34 of the 100 state house districts.
Yes for Responsible Mining secured the required 25,468 signatures to get I-186 on the ballot
near the deadline in June, after rewriting an unpopular version of the initiative. Critics of the
earlier version, including state officials, said the language was ambiguous and would not stand
up to legal scrutiny. The final version attempted to clear up the confusion as well as make it
clear the initiative would not apply to existing mining operations.
But those mines, such as Montana Resources here in Butte, were not comforted. The Montana
Mining Association sued Attorney General Tim Fox and Secretary of State Cory Stapleton in an
attempt to stop the initiative, but the state Supreme Court unanimously ruled against the them.
The Mining Association has continued to rail against the initiative, along with other groups and
citizens. Their message has been clear: if passed, I-186 will reduce the number of potential
mining jobs in Montana. Even the drafters of the initiative would not argue this point, but the
opposition’s talking points have drifted to hyperbole. The Mining Association’s executive
director, Tammy Johnson, was quoted as saying the initiative “will kill any future mining from
ever occurring again in the state.” Several letters to the editor in our local paper and other
platforms have echoed this claim, that the initiative will shut down all mining in the state,
eliminating all mining jobs and decimating the tax base. Even Butte’s Counsel of Commissioners
jumped on board, passing a resolution opposing the initiative.
But what are the facts? What is the language in this initiative that has mining advocates
concerned? Well, as promised, the initiative amends the Montana code to allow the DEQ to
deny permits to mines requiring perpetual water treatment. Specifically, subsection 13a states:
“The reclamation plan must contain measures sufficient to prevent the pollution of water
without the need for perpetual treatment”. We here in Butte are not unfamiliar with plans
requiring “treatment in perpetuity”. Many hard rock mines in our area will require water
treatment for the foreseeable future, including MR and Golden Sunlight in Whitehall. Once
sulfide ore bodies like these have been exposed to the elements it is nearly impossible to
eliminate the production of acid mine drainage, as well as the leaching of contaminants like
lead and arsenic. That is not to say the impacts to the environment cannot be mitigated, and
the mines mentioned have successfully managed to prevent the release these contaminants.
But the treatment must continue in perpetuity, or for those of us who don’t speak legalese:
forever. So environmentalists are dubious of these treatment strategies. After all, we have seen
companies like Pegasus Gold leave behind cleanups like the Zortman-Landusky which will
require treatment in perpetuity, now paid for by the state.
So, what about claims that the initiative will open the door to shutting down existing mines?
Many industry advocates have suggested ambiguous language within I-186 will result in an end
to all mining in Montana. I am no legal expert, but the language in subsection 13c seems clear:
“This…applies except in the case of...an operating permit or reclamation plan pursuant to which
a mine has been permitted on or before November 6, 2018.” Surely this provision exempts MR,
Golden Sunlight, and other existing mines from these requirements.
New mines, however, might find it very difficult to meet the requirements of I-186. With our
state’s rich mineral resources, many new mines are in the works and would be subject to the
rules. Consumer demand for metals ensures these commodities will be mined somewhere. If
they are mined in Montana, under existing regulations, we know they will be held to some of
the most stringent standards in the world, by regulatory agencies that have learned the lessons
of a legacy of mining, first hand.
So before you go to the polls this November, look into the facts and disregard the propaganda
from both sides of I-186. You can find the initiative in its entirety at sosmt.gov under the
Dave Hutchins reporting for KBMF.