The sponsors of a proposed ballot initiative intended to address mine pollution in Montana withdrew their original filing last week and are advancing new language to make clear that existing mines would be exempt from the measure.
David Brooks, executive director of Trout Unlimited, said the initiative would require permits for new mines to include a reclamation plan. That would help ensure that taxpayers don’t foot the bill for perpetual treatment of water contaminated by acid mine drainage or other contaminants, including arsenic, lead and mercury.
“This measure ensures future mine reclamation is done right so that Montana taxpayers and our clean water are protected,” Brooks said. “We understand the need to make sure we get this language right so that it’s abundantly clear the measure exempts all existing mines, including future operations at those mines.”
Sponsors filed new language with the Montana Secretary of State earlier this month after the fiscal note for a previous version of the measure flagged an issue with the exemption language.
According to the fiscal note, the exemption could be interpreted as not applying to amendments to operating permits for existing mines. The same issue was also noted in Legislative Services’ review of the proposed initiative.
“It was always our intent to exempt existing mines, and we believed the plain language was sufficient,” Brooks said. “But in response to the fiscal note we saw last week, we are being extra careful, like wearing a belt plus suspenders.”
According to a 1995 report from Montana DEQ, Montana has 276 abandoned mines that present significant risk for water pollution. An analysis conducted by Trout Unlimited found 9,380 miles of streams that are listed as impaired for heavy metals or acidity.
Brooks said the proposed initiative seeks to prevent future problems and protect Montana taxpayers, who have spent millions of dollars cleaning and treating mines after they close.
The Zortman-Landusky Mine has cost taxpayers $26 million, to date, with another $3 million each year for ongoing water treatment. More than $13 million in taxpayer funds have been spent for cleanup and ongoing water treatment at the Beal Mine.
Once the ballot statement is finalized, Brooks said, the Montana Secretary of State will prepare the petition form, and supporters will begin collecting the required 25,468 valid signatures in order to qualify the measure for the November ballot.
“Refiling has delayed signature gathering and cost our effort additional money, but it was important that we get the language right,” said Brooks. “When Montanans vote ‘YES’ on this initiative to hold mining companies accountable and protect our clean water, we want it to be perfectly clear that existing mines and their employees will not be affected.”