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Forever is a long, long time. On that, both the supporters and opponents of Initiative 186 agree.

Where they differ most significantly is whether this initiative is an attempt to fix something that isn’t broken, or will in fact protect Montana’s water from costly, devastating pollution in the future.

I-186 is aimed at raising the standards used by Montana Department of Environmental Quality’s when considering new hard-rock mines. If approved by voters, it will require mining companies to provide “clear and convincing evidence” that any new mines will not contaminate water in a way that will require “perpetual treatment.” If they cannot provide such evidence, DEQ must deny the permit.

Currently, DEQ has no authority to deny a new mining permit that is likely to result in the kind of contamination that will need perpetual water treatment. That’s a scary thought.

Companies may come and go, even the kind of major global outfits that often go into mineral extraction. How likely is it that a company that owns a mine that is likely to pollute water “forever” will also be in business “forever”? That seems like good cause for worry.

Opponents of the initiative — especially those who work in the mining industry — have their own worries, of course. They are concerned that the terms of the initiative are too vague and will require additional legislation and rule-making. They firmly believe the I-186 will lead to confusion and increased litigation. Further, they point out that DEQ will need to add staff, paid for by Montana taxpayers, to handle the additional environmental review and legal casework.

A close look at the facts will allay a lot of these fears.

After all, similar legislation has been in place in other states, including top mineral-producing states, without causing widespread confusion or a notable increase in litigation. If anything, such laws reduce the likelihood of legal challenges by removing one major cause for litigation: possible water pollution from acid mine drainage.

And yes, the fiscal note on the initiative does say that DEQ will likely have to add one staff member if it is passed. Frankly, the office could probably use a few more; the entire Hard Rock Mining Bureau currently has less than a dozen employees.

The fiscal note on the initiative also goes a long way toward answering some of the most pressing questions from mining advocates:

1. “Perpetual water treatment” is a clearly defined term that is used by DEQ already in regards to other permitting matters.

2. Testing to evaluate the likelihood of water contamination is already required. The initiative would simply elevate the acceptable threshold.

3. The initiative concerns only new mines. At the moment, DEQ has no mine applications that propose perpetual water treatment.

This last point calls for some expounding, as opponents of I-186 have raised alarm about whether this initiative would stall any current mining plans or prevent existing mines from expanding.

The language, however, is clear. The fiscal note spells out that only new mines — those seeking a permit after Election Day — will be subject to the new “clear and convincing” standard.

Many in the mining industry are worried this initiative will scare off mining companies considering potential new mines in Montana. They point out that a new mine hasn’t opened in Montana in 20 years. And that’s without the added burden of more regulatory hoops to jump through to get a permit.

But as hoops go, clean water assurances seem like a step that shouldn’t be skipped. Montanans have good reason to worry about the quality of our water. Too many times in the past, we’ve allowed companies take our resources, then fold up and leave taxpayers to figure out how to clean up the pollution they leave behind. The public cost ends up far outweighing any economic benefit from the creation of new mining jobs.

In fact, over the years Montana has passed several laws aimed at reducing the impact of mineral development on local taxpayers. It has also instituted a bonding program in which DEQ attempts to calculate the environmental damage from a new mine and how much it might cost to remediate it. The company proposing the new mine must put up a bond to cover those costs.

This poses a problem, of course, when the pollution is “perpetual.” Who knows how much it might cost to treat water 100 years into the future? What will treatment technology look like two generations from now? How much will electricity cost 50 years from now?

While water treatment technology has made leaps forward in recent years, spurred in large part by necessity, it is still far from fool-proof. In any case, it is far better to keep our water clean in the first place than to dirty it deliberately and then attempt to “treat” it to remove contaminants, let alone treat it in perpetuity.

Montanans have already paid tens of millions to reclaim and treat polluted water from just a handful of mines. The Zortman Landusky mine’s acid drainage alone cost more than $27 million, and will continue to cost taxpayers $1 million or more a year, every year, forever. It closed in 1998, but Montanans are still paying and will continue to pay the costs of treating its contaminated water.

Instead of waiting for another environmental disaster to occur and then passing a law to prevent it from happening again, let’s recognize that perpetual water pollution is one thing that Montana can get out in front of.

We can pass I-186 and make sure Montana isn’t left with any more perpetually polluted water and perpetual public costs than the mining industry has already created here with certain short-sighted practices.

Vote "yes" on the Requirements for Permits and Reclamation Plans of New Hard Rock Mines Initiative, I-186. 

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