By Colin Cooney
On Feb. 21, a clean-water initiative supported by a coalition of Montana conservation organizations, including Montana Trout Unlimited, was submitted to the Montana Secretary of State’s office.
This initiative is simple. It’s about protecting Montana’s water, public health and Montana taxpayers from perpetual mine pollution and cleanup costs caused by new mines. Water is a scarce and precious resource throughout Montana and the West. Yet, certain types of mines result in such severe and lasting water pollution that perpetual, expensive treatment is required.
The public health risks from this type of long-term water pollution and the financial liability from water treatment costs are enormous. This initiative amends the state’s mining laws to require a mine to demonstrate that it can be reclaimed without the need for perpetual water treatment. It gives the state of Montana the necessary tools to protect Montana taxpayers, now and for generations to come. It also protects our clean water, while allowing for responsible mineral development by companies willing to ensure cleanup and restoration.
It is fundamentally bad public policy to permit mines that will require water treatment that continues long after the likely life of the mining company. There is no way to ensure that reclamation bonds will cover the cost of water treatment in perpetuity, and the costs end up at the feet of taxpayers. No one can predict what water treatment or energy costs will be 50 to 100 years from now, or if economic conditions will generate a return on the investment, or even if the institution that holds the bond will be in existence.
There have been five major mining company bankruptcies in Montana, including Pegasus Gold, W.R. Grace, Asarco, Canyon Resources and Atna. In every case, the reclamation bonds were insufficient to cover the full cost of cleanup and long-term water treatment. As we look to the future, this initiative will give certainty to coming generations of Montanans that their water resources will remain intact and that they won’t have to pay for perpetual water treatment.
The people of Montana value responsibility and accountability, it is time we hold the mining industry to those values. We support responsible mining, and we value Montana’s irreplaceable water resources.
Colin Cooney is the Montana coordinator for TU’s Sportsmen’s Conservation Project.