Amid concerns over the future of Montana Resources, the Butte-Silver Bow Council of Commissioners unanimously passed a resolution this week opposing an environmental initiative which backers say will protect Montana’s water and taxpayers.
Despite repeated assurances from environmentalists that the measure, I-186, will not negatively impact current mining operations, industry advocates say the language in the initiative is too vague, putting current industry in jeopardy.
Four citizens appealed to commissioners during Thursday's meeting to pass the resolution opposing I-186 because they say it could still put one of the county's largest employers, Montana Resources, in danger of being shut down.
The resolution states that the county wants legislation designed by both industry and environmentalists. That would give industry the chance to help craft protections for Montana taxpayers so they don't pay for messes left behind by bad-actor mining companies.
David Dunmire, an operator for MR, predicted he would be the last of three generations of Butte miners if the initiative gets on the ballot and is passed by voters in November.
Helen Joyce, who sits on the Butte Natural Resource Damage Council board, said Butte's economy and tax base would be decimated.
The environmental groups behind the initiative, Yes for Responsible Mining, garnered over 45,000 signatures by late June. They needed around 25,000 to get the measure before voters for the midterm election in November.
The state will rule on whether Yes for Responsible Mining has enough valid signatures sometime next month.
Jim Kambich, head of Montana Economic Revitalization and Development Institute (MERDI), reminded the council of what he called one of Butte’s “darkest days” when all mining ceased in the Mining City in 1982. That year, Atlantic Richfield Company, which had bought the former Anaconda Company, shut down mining at the Berkeley Pit.
Kambich said over 40 amendments have been made to mining laws in the last 15 years. He said current mining laws already protect Montana’s water.
“The ambiguous language leaves it up to interpretation for the few to decide,” Kambich said. “That puts a lot in jeopardy.”
Mike McGivern, Montana Resources’ vice president for human resources, said MR has a current permit up for the state’s review. If the state accepts the pending permit, MR will expand its tailings impoundment, where waste material from processing the copper ore is stored.
That expansion is necessary for MR’s operations. The state's decision on MR's permit won't be made until after the November election, which could put MR at risk if I-186 becomes law, McGivern said.
“We’re still worried due to the current vagueness of I-186,” McGivern said.
No one spoke in favor of I-186. However, environmentalists say they have the necessary five percent of signatures from the Butte electorate for the measure to meet state qualifications to get on the November ballot.
One commissioner, Cindi Shaw, was absent. Dave Palmer, the county’s chief executive, was also not present.