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Mine Backers Lead I-186 Supporters In Fundraising

The latest fundraising reports say opponents of a ballot initiative aimed at protecting Montana waterways from mine pollution have raised about 25 percent more money than its supporters, despite not taking in any cash in August.

I-186 asks Montana voters to approve new regulations. They would require new mines to prove their operations won’t pollute water in ways that will require perpetual treatment.

On a recent Saturday David Brooks, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited and a leader of the campaign supporting I-186, was loading up his blue, inflatable canoe.

“[I’m] puttin’ in here for the I-186 float, heading downriver,” he says. “Enjoying our streams and rivers.”

Along with a gaggle of fellow supporters, he’s floating down the Clark Fork in East Missoula to raise awareness for the ballot initiative. About 45,000 Montanans signed a petition that put the initiative on the ballot last spring, though only about 25,000 signatures were required.

Credit Nick Mott
David Brooks, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited, paddles down the Clark Fork in Missoula.

“In spite of the fact that our name, Montana, means mountains, many of us recognize both in Montana and outside that it’s our rivers that’s one of our special attributes,” Brooks says. “And also Montanans understand the history and the legacy of mining and while it’s been very important to our economy historically, it’s left a mark. And we can do it better in the future.”

Bonnie Gestring, the northwest program director for Earthworks,is getting situated in her blue, one-person inflatable kayak. She says this river, in particular, helps tell the story of what irresponsible mining can do to a body of water.

“The upper Clark Fork River has been damaged heavily by mine pollution from the Berkeley Pit, and that’s a perfect example of a mine that’s going to pollute in perpetuity,” she says. “And we would like to see in the future mining done more responsibly, mining done where there won’t be pollution that lasts for hundreds and thousands of years.”

But opponents of the initiative say the language is too vague, and that it could devastate the state’s mining industry.Brendan McDonough is a Butte-Silver Bow County Commissioner. He sponsored a council resolution opposed to I-186.

“The issues that it intends to address are already being addressed,” he says.

Right now, new mining operations have to put up bond money that will help treat the wastewater they generate when operations are complete. And McDonough says that both state and federal regulations have come a long way in the last two decades.

But, opponents counter that bonds run out and mines sometimes go bankrupt or are abandoned. In a sense, they can take the money and run. In those cases, the burden falls to taxpayers. Major mining bankruptcies like Zortman Landusky, Beal Mountain and Basin Creek have cumulatively cost Montanans tens of millions of dollars.

If the initiative passes, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality or the legislature will have to define exactly what “perpetual treatment of water” and other terms mean. And McDonough says this language leaves too much uncertainty, and could leave any new mines tangled up in lawsuits.

“To define it after it’s passed seems to be very ambiguous and scary, in a lot of ways,” he says.

He says it could make it impossible for new mines to be approved or for existing mines to expand. He’s particularly concerned about the big copper mine currently operating in Butte. Montana Resources is proposing an expansion. If I-186 is passed, McDonough says:

“Those new regulations may prevent them from doing that, which would cease operations. No one can say for certain, but there’s no certainty that it won’t happen. So I think the entire industry of mining is on alert.”

However, David Brooks of Montana Trout Unlimited says the language in I-186 is clear.

“We included in this an exception to any currently permitted mines or expansions of those,” Brooks says. “This law will not touch any mines that have already been permitted or their expansions into the future, sort of grandfathered them in.”

Brooks says I-186 doesn’t have to pit mining against the environment, and that in other states where similar legislation exists, mines have continued to be permitted.

“We know that we can continue mining in this more responsible way,” he says.

Butte-Silver Bow County Commissioner Brendan McDonough says miners care about keeping Montana rivers clean too, but any changes to mining regulation should come through the legislature - not a ballot initiative.

For now, opponents of the initiative like McDonough have a louder voice than supporters. They’ve raised about $875,000 in cash.

The Montana Mining Associationhas contributed a total of more than $900,000 in cash, staff time and other in-kind services. Another $80,000 worth of cash and in-kind help has come from Montana Resources, which runs the copper mine in Butte, the South African-owned Sibanye Stillwater platinum mines, and Sandfire Resources, which is seeking to open a copper mine near White Sulphur Springs.

Proponents of I-186 have raised about $680,000. The bulk of that support comes from Trout Unlimited and its Montana chapter, at over $200,000 including in-kind donations.

Credit Nick Mott
Heidi MacDonald floats the Clark Fork in support of I-186.

Back at the float, Missoula resident Heidi MacDonald is slicing through the clear water of the Clark Fork. She says she wants to make sure Montana’s waterways stay pristine so her four kids can keep on enjoying the state’s natural beauty.

“As they move on to adulthood and they move on to have children, I want rivers to be as accessible and clean to them as they have been to me,” she says. “I’m born and raised in Montana, in Missoula, so I’ve always been on the river.”

Nora Saks is a reporter and producer based in Butte, MT.
Nick Mott is a reporter and podcast producer based in Livingston, Montana.
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