There's one thing all Montanans can agree on: We all like clean water. We all value it. We all care about the water we drink, the water in which we recreate and the water that makes our crops grow, our livestock and our wildlife thrive and our landscapes picture-postcard beautiful.
When it comes to Initiative 186, that's where the agreement stops.
The backers of the initiative, a coalition that includes a dozen environmental organizations, including the Montana chapter of Trout Unlimited and the Montana Environmental Information Center, designed the measure to keep the state from permitting mines that would require treating water in perpetuity. It is the second try at the wording; after the state analysis of the first draft showed it could mean the closure of mines such as Montana Resources and Golden Sunlight, it was withdrawn in favor of a new version with language specific enough, its supporters say, to protect current mining operations.
The mining companies running those currently operating mines aren't so sure. They believe the initiative's language is still vague enough that when they go back to the state for additional permitting, as they will need to do from time to time, the measure could put their operations in jeopardy.
Also, they worry that if the initiative passes, environmental groups will use it to sue existing mines.
"If they do, they'll lose," is the initiative backers' rejoinder.
That, to us, is cold comfort indeed. As we know in today's society, anyone can sue anyone else for anything. Some anti-mining groups have made suing mines a veritable cottage industry. Why wouldn't they use this new weapon? And once a case gets to court, absolutely anything can happen.
Opponents are still very concerned that that the language protecting existing operations is too vague. We can argue semantics endlessly, but we share their concerns.
While we all like clean water, this well-meaning initiative must be viewed in context. Yes, we've had disastrous environmental issues caused by mining companies. The poster child for this is Pegasus Gold. Its bankruptcy left the state huge ongoing obligations for cleanup, including perpetual water treatment at Zortman-Landusky and messes closer to home at Beal Mountain and Basin Creek.
But mines are engineered, permitted and bonded far differently today than they were when Pegasus was in operation — or The Anaconda Company, for that matter. The Department of Environmental Quality has stepped up to become one of the nation's best statewide mining regulators.
The measure's proponents say that no mines currently in the permitting process would be affected because none of them anticipate treating water in perpetuity.
That, frankly, shows us why this measure is unneeded. Mining is done differently today.
In the big picture, mining in Montana needs to continue. Permitting is already an incredibly arduous, expensive and time-consuming process for mining companies. And so it should be. But we must not make it literally impossible to mine in the Treasure State. Mining must continue worldwide, for all manner of reasons, and we need to be able to take advantage of at least some of the mineral bounty with which this state is blessed. We need the minerals, we need the jobs and we need the ripple benefits to the economy that mining brings.
We have already recognized in this state that we cannot let mining disrupt our environment and our outdoor economy. We need to be very cautious about where and how we mine. We support the exclusion of mining, for instance, around Yellowstone Park, for the same obvious reasons that the majority of Park County businesses support it.
Bottom line: We believe this initiative is redundant and unneeded. Further, we believe there's an excellent chance it will turn into a litigation factory, and we certainly don't need another one of those.
We also don't need to spend time arguing about whether or not this initiative will harm current mining operations. If there is even the slightest chance that it will, it must be rejected by Montana voters.
We urge you to vote no on Initiative 186.