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Flathead lake

Three recent guest columns urge a “no” vote on Initiative 186 – Rex Rogers (Oct. 6), Ed Greef (Oct. 8) and Duane Mitchell (Oct. 9). I urge a “yes” vote.

Water is our most important resource. Mining companies, often owned and controlled by interests outside of Montana, have never accepted a “balance between mining and the environment.” The profit motive gets in the way, and the public’s interest (our clean water) is undervalued.

Rogers and Mitchell draw on a study by the University of Montana's Bureau of Business and Economic Research (BBER), a study paid for by the Montana Mining Association to examine the importance of the mining industry in Montana. They both argue that “out-of-state activists” are behind the “yes” vote on I-186 and out of touch with “everyday Montanans.” The history of lobbying in Montana by out-of-state mining interests tells a different story.

How important is mining relative to what is at risk? BBER finds 2,349 current mining jobs and a further 931 (based on industry estimates) that would result from three proposed mines — mines presumably at risk should I-186 pass. Mining has historically been important, but its 2,849 current jobs (0.6 percent of the 479,000 jobs in the state) contrast sharply with 66,000 jobs (13.8 percent of Montana jobs) in the “leisure and hospitality” sector, many of which depend on clean water. Montanans float and fish our blue-ribbon streams, and recreate in and on clean waters; visitors, drawn to our waters and magnificent environment, create jobs. Supporting I-186 recognizes the importance of the 66,000 (and growing) jobs, and the environment on which they rely, and reflects the substantial value of protecting that environment.

In addition to income and jobs, increased tax revenues are given as a reason to support more mining. Do these tax revenues offset the costs accompanying mining? It’s unfortunate (but not surprising) that the BBER study, contracted by the mining industry, does not examine these costs. Ironically, many jobs created by mining have been to “clean up a mess” at considerable public expense. Indeed, the costs of Superfund sites and mitigating mining pollution elsewhere are immense. Estimates of $600 million for reclamation in Libby, $150 million for restoration of Silver Bow Creek, and $95 million for Milltown Reservoir cleanup, although large, are likely well below actual costs. Berkeley Pit is not a tourist attraction-generating pride.

Greef thinks Montanans are “bamboozled” by those promoting I-186. Quite the contrary! I-186 is designed to avoid further “bamboozling” by the mining industry. Montanans are increasingly aware of the billions of dollars required to remove pollutants from water, air and properties, and of recreational activities adversely impacted or foregone. A "no" vote on I-186 helps minimize such future costs.

Montanans need to protect the large and growing number of jobs in non-mining sectors adversely affected by mining activities. Montanans also seek to protect a valued environment. We need to minimize current and future spending on lingering reclamation issues. I-186 requires reclamation plans to ensure clean water, avoiding the need for perpetual water treatment. Given the history of mining, drilling, accompanying pollution and industry walking away from reclamation costs, “everyday Montanans” have reason to be hard-nosed in protecting clean water. These are sound reasons to support I-186.

A “yes” vote on I-186 is a “yes” vote for clean water, our most important resource.

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Roger S. Smith is a retired economist and public finance consultant living on the shores of Flathead Lake.

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