On April 22, 1982, Atlantic Richfield shut off the pumps at the Kelley Mine, and Butte has never been the same. The environmental nightmare of the Berkeley Pit ensued directly from that decision.
Now, a collection of environmental groups, in an effort to prevent another such disaster in the state, have instead set Butte up for a tragedy of similar proportion.
Ballot Issue 12, a proposal designed to block any further mining projects in the state that would result in water being treated in perpetuity, is worded so ambiguously that the state budget office believes that if it passes, the Department of Environmental Quality would be forced to deny any permit change from Montana Resources or Golden Sunlight.
That would effectively kill both mines, since they are both currently in the permitting process for expansions.
The flick of a switch, the stroke of a pen.
Someday, Montana Resources will stop mining in Butte. But with their outstanding safety and environmental record, it would be a travesty if that day comes soon. The mine absolutely deserves permit approvals to allow it to keep mining for the next couple of decades, at the least. And if the life of the mine is foreshortened by careless words and misguided activism, Butte, once again, will "get the shaft."
Words are powerful things when they carry the weight of the law and the power of the people behind them. It is highly irresponsible to propose something so sweeping that leaves any interpretation in doubt.
Imagine how people will feel if the real death knell for mining in Butte comes not from a mine company's dollars-and-cents decision but from the sloppy word processor of an environmental group's initiative drafter.
For many years, Butte has actually been a leader in this state in environmental stewardship and activism. The contributions of Butte conservationists on issues like stream access and access to public lands are well documented and the entire state owes a debt of gratitude for them.
How shameful that a group like Montana Trout Unlimited should be part of something that would kick Butte in the teeth in return.
A "fixed" version has been proposed after the state budget office pointed out the potential hazard. But it is unclear whether the new version can clear required legal vetting in time to make the ballot. In the meantime, the coalition of environmental groups say they will continue to support the first version as a contingency plan if the second version is not approved in time.
That is the height of irresponsibility. The flawed initial draft should be withdrawn, even if it means postponing the initiative effort.
We would support negotiation leading to a legislative fix as opposed to the sledgehammer approach of an initiative anyway.
If this initiative passes and ultimately ends mining here, the damage will not be confined to Butte or even to the mining industry. The environmental movement in this state will never live it down, and the backlash will be vicious and long-lasting.