Montana voters could have the chance to vote on limiting pollution from hard rock mines, which could potentially impact projects proposed outside Yellowstone National Park.
According to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the Montana Secretary of State approved ballot initiative I-186, which would require “new mines to prove their operations won’t require perpetual treatment of water polluted by mine waste.”
SOS approval is only one step, however. Supporters of the initiative have from now to June 21, 2018 to gather over 25,000 signatures on a petition to ensure I-186 is on the November ballot.
According to the Chronicle, the initiative comes from a coalition of environmental groups called Yes for Responsible Mining. The group says I-186 will ensure Montana’s water quality will be protected and prevent the environmental degradation seen with past mining operations.
Critics of the ballot initiative say the measure is a job-killer, meant to scare investors away from the state. Tammy Johnson, executive director of the Montana Mining Association, told the Chronicle she thinks “the true intent is to shut down mining” in the state.
Conservation and environmental groups counter that the initiative seeks to make mining safer in the state. David Brooks, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited, told reporters in a conference call that the initiative “reflects Montana’s values of responsibility and accountability.” From the Chronicle:
Montana has seen a spate of mining proposals in the last few years, including the Black Butte Project near White Sulphur Springs and two exploratory proposals in the mountains north of Yellowstone National Park. Thursday’s press call included initiative supporters from both areas.
Seabring Davis, the co-owner of Chico Hot Springs, said the mining proposal near her business made the issue personal. She said it’s not about preventing mining, but ensuring future mines don’t leave behind environmental messes that taxpayers fund.
“We shouldn’t be left with the bill from these businesses that propose mining exploration,” she said.
State lawmakers have considered legislation in the past to prohibit mining that would require perpetual treatment, but no measure has ever succeeded. Brooks said the initiative’s language mirrors similar laws in Maine, Michigan and New Mexico.
If passed, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality would require mining companies to reclaim mine sites well enough to avoid perpetual treatment of water contaminated by acid mine drainage or other pollutants. The initiative calls for reclamation plans that provide “clear and convincing evidence” that perpetual treatment won’t be needed.
According to the Chronicle, this is the third draft of I-186. The first initiative, proposed in February 2018, was rejected by the Montana SOS. A second draft was withdrawn after mining industry groups said the language was too vague.
Johnson told the Chronicle she believes the language is still too vague and puts too much onus on permit applicants to prove mines won’t require perpetual treatment. She added the association may counter the initiative, but didn’t say how.
We’ve previously reported that two companies, Lucky Minerals Inc. and Crevice Mining Group, have proposed drilling for gold in two spots in the Paradise Valley just north of Yellowstone National Park. The claims are on private land. Opponents of the proposal fear any successful mine would have to expand on to public land and that mining could lead to water contamination and mar the scenery. The Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition, for instance, argues mining would detrimentally impact the seasonal tourism industry.
So far, Crevice has been unsuccessful in getting approval from the DEQ. Lucky Minerals has gotten approval to perform exploratory drilling and plans to do so this year. The company also announced a new investor in late 2017.
Currently, there is a moratorium on new mining claims on 30,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service land adjacent to the Crevice and Lucky claims. In March 2018, the U.S. Forest Service voiced support for a 20-year withdrawal of the lands, which has been endorsed by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Meanwhile, both U.S. Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) and U.S. Representative Greg Gianforte (R-MT) have introduced legislation to permanently withdraw the lands in question. Currently, however, the fate of the legislation is uncertain, after it was omitted from an omnibus spending bill. U.S. Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) has voiced support for the “principles” of the legislation but says he has too many concerns over how the bill would handle private property.