As is sometimes the situation, issues outside of the agricultural spectrum that have the potential to affect jobs and the economy in our rural communities come into play in Montana politics.
Our natural resource industries including agriculture are intimately connected in weaving the economic fiber of rural and suburban Montana. Laws and rules that affect one industry can play a role in employment and the economy of other citizens in the area.
This brings us to Initiative 186, the mining initiative purported to protect Montana’s water that requires the Department of Environmental Quality to deny a permit for any new hardrock mines in Montana unless the reclamation plan provides clear and convincing evidence that the mine will not require perpetual treatment of water polluted by acid mine drainage or other contaminants.
As with many initiatives, it is what is not written in I-186 that affects its final outcome. Proponents for I-186 would have you believe that the citizens of Montana have footed the bill for prior cleanups of hard rock mines. They posit that as mining companies go out of business, or leave the state, the state of Montana is left holding the bag on cleanup and water quality treatment. According to testimony given at the Environmental Quality Council by Department of Environmental Quality personnel, no public money has been spent on mine cleanup. A levy is charged against mining companies to cover ongoing cleanup. In essence, Montana mining companies are paying for the cleanup of mines that are no longer operating or out of business.
The initiative states that it will require clear and convincing evidence that a mine will not require perpetual treatment of water polluted by mines. Proving a negative is nearly impossible and "clear and convincing" is an extremely high standard of proof.
I-186 is meant to stop mining, adds confusion to our laws and will breed lawsuits. Proponents attempt to mislead Montana voters into believing that our mining industry needs more regulation, but that just isn’t so.
According to Dave Galt with Stop I-186, a review of mining laws shows that Montana’s laws are among the most stringent in the country. The initiative completely ignores the modernization of Montana’s mining laws and the rigorous regulatory process that members of the mining industry must go through to obtain a permit.
Montana mining contributes nearly $42 million in annual tax revenue, which supports local education, infrastructure and law enforcement, among other things. Mining has infused the Montana economy with about $1.83 billion in output. These dollars are what keeps the lights on in many of our rural communities.
Why should any of this matter to folks involved in Montana agriculture? Montana’s rural economy is struggling. Our tax system was built on production. The money that mining pays in taxes supplies the dollars that keep our schools open and our roads in drivable condition. When we limit the continuation or growth of a segment of that tax base, we strangle our small towns.
Mining, like every other industry including agriculture, has changed over the years. Improvements in technology in all resource industries have capitalized on what we have learned in past. Modern mining can exist in Montana and does so under extremely stringent environmental laws. There are few Montanan’s more interested in keeping our water clean than agriculture.
I-186 is ambiguous, unnecessary and will stop all mining in the state with little or no improvement in the environment.