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One of the things I’m proudest of about Montana is that our Constitution asserts that clean air and clean water are our birthright. Those of us who live here are accustomed to these truths; they inform our daily actions, and our values.

It’s for this reason that I, as a geologist, enthusiastically support Initiative 186, which requires any new hard-rock, metal mines to assume the cost of cleaning up without leaving behind permanent water pollution, rather than passing the cleanup costs to Montana taxpayers. It’s a common-sense, much-needed tweak to our metal mine permitting laws.

I-186 doesn’t stop a single mine in Montana — it is simply a good and prudent business move, if much belated, that requires the multinational companies working in our state to be responsible for protecting our water. This initiative makes an important distinction that the newly water-impoverished states of New Mexico and Michigan have realized with passage of similar initiatives: It’s our water, not theirs.

Whether we pump it from our wells to drink it, or irrigate crops and gardens, or provide it for our livestock — whether we fish in it, swim in it, canoe and raft and float it — water means different things to each of us, but means everything to all of us. “You don’t miss your water ‘til your well goes dry,” sings Graham Parsons. There are so many ways to lose water; the quickest way, however, is to have it be poisoned.

As taxpayers, you and I are paying hundreds of millions of dollars for cleanup already. Sometimes the mining companies don’t just cut and run when “profitability” of a resource dips or declines, but smoke the land and subsurface water down to its last nub before a mine plays out. Without I-186, there’s a financial incentive for companies to do exactly this, traveling all the way down to the bitter end of bankruptcy, knowing Montana taxpayers will be there to take care of them. There have been five major mining bankruptcies in Montana, including W.R. Grace’s asbestos mine outside Libby. None of the companies’ reclamation bonds ever came close to paying the full cost of cleanup and long-term water treatment.

If they can’t take care of our water, why would we possibly trust them?

As a geologist, it has always amazed and frustrated me to see mining companies representing the architecture of the buried world beneath us as being manageable, able to be controlled as if with magic valves, and always contained, with no harm, ever, to anything. Anyone selling you that line of thinking might as well be selling you magic beans too.

Montana is where our children are born, and where many come here to make a stand. It’s hard to imagine our state ever running out of clean water, but stranger things happen every day. And in the meantime, we keep getting the bills to help keep our groundwater and surface water clean, while the old loophole keeps allowing mining companies who skulk away when the mine plays out or commodity prices drop, leaving us to pick up the tab.

And without I-186 in place, why wouldn’t they let us pay for it, rather than them having to? It’s not good manners and it’s not good business.

I heartily endorse I-186, Montanans standing up for Montana’s water, and am voting "yes" to clean water and financial responsibility.

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Rick Bass lives in northwest Montana’s Yaak Valley, where he is a board member of the Yaak Valley Forest Council ( and Save the Yellowstone Grizzlies ( He is the author of more than 30 books, including "Oil Notes."

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