Controversial I-186 mining legislation moves forward

By Tracy McNew

 

I-186 will most likely be on the ballot in November. The initiative is intended to limit pollution from new hard rock mines in Montana and it has been controversial since day one.

I-186 was written by  Yes for Responsible Mining, a coalition of  environmental groups. The initiative originally included mines currently in operation and would likely have cost hundreds of jobs if it were passed. It was rewritten earlier this year to apply to new mining permits only. In it’s current version, it proposes to change the requirements for obtaining mining permits by adopting more stringent regulations related to water quality concerns.

Montana Mining Association (MMA) recently lost a court battle that would have kept the initiative off of November’s ballot. They had hoped that it would be deemed “legally insufficient,” but the state supreme court ruled unanimously otherwise.

Late last week, I-186 passed another hurdle. In order to get onto November’s statewide ballot, I-186 needs over 25,000 verified signatures from around the state, said David Brooks, Executive Director of Trout Unlimited and contact person listed on the website yeson186.org.

“Signature gathering ended on Friday, June 22,” Brooks said. “Around 45,000 signatures were obtained. It was a nearly unprecedented effort and we’re very happy with the results. The signatures have to be verified, but we feel like we have enough over the minimum and from enough places around the state that we’ll easily qualify,” he told The Montanian during a phone interview on Sunday.

According to the group’s website yeson186.org, “I-186 is about being accountable to taxpayers and protecting vital resources like clean water for future generations.” The initiative will “Protect Montana taxpayers and clean water.”

Their website also states that Montana has 3,500 abandoned mines  with more than 200 of them known to be polluting our water.

Dave Galt, Executive Director of the group Stop I-186 said in a speech on June 20, “I-186 would cast a shroud of uncertainty over mining in Montana and effectively ban any new mine from starting up.”

“We’re not looking to shut down mining in Montana, just to do exactly what companies say,” said Brooks.  “Mining companies have been telling us for years that they have the ability to mine without impacting the environment and this would hold them accountable,”

According to the SOSMT.gov website, ballot language for I-186 is as follows:  “I-186 requires the Department of Environmental Quality to deny a permit for any new hard rock 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.

The terms “perpetual treatment,” “perpetual leaching,” and “contaminants” within I-186 are not fully defined and would require further definition from the Montana Legislature or through Department of Environmental Quality rulemaking.”

Local Senator Chas Vincent told The Montanian in an email, “This initiative is inserting new, undefined terms into our Metal Mine Reclamation Laws by individuals that know little to nothing about the existing processes. They have ignored legislative drafters warnings and forged ahead because at the end of the day, this isn’t about clean water, it’s about continuing the assault on responsible resource development in our state and taking family wage opportunities away from Montana citizens.

Other locals concerned about how I-186 could affect the proposed Rock Creek and Montanore mines have voiced their support for Galt’s group STOP I-186 too.

According to Diane Rewerts, principal of WF Morrison Elementary in Troy, “Montana mining not only helps support schools through tax revenue, but it increases the per capita income of the area. Through the good-paying jobs the mining industry provides, families are able to provide a more stable environment for the next generation of Montanans. I-186 would negatively impact our mining industry, and negatively impact our kids. I hope Montanans vote no on this measure.”

Rewarts attended the STOP I-186 campaign event held at Montana Tech on June 20 along with Kenny Rayome, sportsman and City of Libby, Water Treatment Plant Operator, Lincoln County Commissioner Jerry Bennet, and nearly 100 others from around the state.

“As an avid sportsman and fly fisherman, the health of Montana’s waterways are incredibly important to me,” said Rayome. “And as a former miner, I know that in many cases the treatment of water by a mine often leaves our water resources in even better shape for aquatic life.”

Brooks stated that he did not believe the initiative would affect the Rock Creek and Montanore mines because they are far enough along in the permitting process, but Vincent disagreed.

“To claim that I-186 will not have any impact on the permitting processes of Rock Creek and Montanore is simply not true, and is a great example of either the lack of knowledge about the permitting processes, or a purposeful misrepresentation of that they are proposing to do. Perhaps it’s a bit of both,” he said.

The wording, “clear and convincing evidence” is also a major concern for those opposed to I-186. Vincent explained that the standard would be like making someone prove that big foot isn’t real.  Currently mining companies have to meet the already stringent standard of preponderance of the evidence which is a step down on the scale of legal standards for burden of proof.

These issues, leave opponents concerned that perpetual litigation will stop all new mining, but according to Brooks, this isn’t likely to be the case. “We actually think this would reduce litigation,” he said. He explained that the Director of DEQ, Tom Livers and attorney of legislative services had a hearing on I–186 in late May, and that they both confirmed that the clear and convincing evidence standards are well known and attainable. “In fact,” Brooks said, by raising the standard of evidence that a mine will not create permanent pollution it will be much harder to challenge in court.”

According to SOSMT.gov, if I-186 is passed in November, it will cost $115,360 in its first fiscal year, increasing to $118,767 by fiscal year 2021. The costs are associated with more staff for environmental review for mining permit applications and anticipated litigation.