The Associated Press recently reported that a United Nations environmental program (UNEP) is arguing for better protections against mining disasters, particularly relating to pollution from material storage sites. In the last decade, according to the report released by the UNEP, there have been nearly 40 significant mining incidents, the majority of which related to failed storage facilities for mine tailings.

Montana, a state wherein mining has occurred since territorial days, is a step ahead the game. During 2015 legislative session, the state enacted the most rigorous and cutting-edge regulation in the western states, and perhaps the world, on tailings storage facilities associated with current and future mine operations.

Mine tailings are the uneconomic remains that result from the milling process, and are conventionally stored in large impoundments like the one which breached in British Columbia in 2014 at the Mount Polley open pit mine. No such occurrence with a large impoundment has ever happened in Montana’s more than 100 years of mining, yet the Montana Mining Association (MMA) had the foresight to facilitate a bill which would cement a substantial list of new requirements into law, ensuring that Montana’s impoundments remain safe long into the future.

The new requirements guarantee that tailings storage facilities are designed using the most advanced practices and technologies available, requiring ample review and approval of design, operation, maintenance and closure by expert engineers ahead of construction.

“Senate Bill 409 is the advent of a new era of mining in Montana, where industry proposes standards progressive in concept, comprehensive in scope and definitive in responsible management of tailings storage facilities,” said Mark Thompson, MMA President and Manager of Environmental Affairs at Montana Resources.

By providing for adaptive management of tailings storage facilities, utilizing the best engineering practices and recommendations, the law ensures that the future of Montana mining prioritizes environmental integrity alongside of economic development.

-- Tammy Johnson is executive director of the Montana Mining Association, a trade group of mineral developers, producers, refiners and vendors in Montana.