Richard Liebert can rattle off at least half a dozen reasons why he wants to see greater accountability for mining companies when it comes to water quality. He’s a taxpayer, a cattle rancher, a conservationist, an Eagle Scout, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel. Mostly, though, he just doesn’t want to see Montanans get ripped off.
“Too many times the public gets stiffed,” he says. “[Mine companies] do the project, the clean-up doesn’t get done and taxpayers end up getting screwed over it. And in the process our clean water’s compromised as well.”
On Feb. 21, a consortium of conservation organizations, fishing shop owners and ranchers, including Liebert, filed a citizen initiative with the Secretary of State’s office seeking to address that very issue. The initiative, proposed for the November ballot, would require mining companies to offer stronger evidence that new hardrock mines won’t permanently pollute nearby ground and surface water. David Brooks, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited, refers to the effort as a “common sense, simple and easy reform.”
“This is just about the permitting process,” Brooks says. “It just allows the [Department of Environmental Quality] to deny a permit if that permit lacks clear and convincing evidence that a mine will not create permanent water pollution and need permanent treatment of water.”
Concerns over the long-term impacts of hardrock mining on streams and rivers have come into sharp focus in recent years, particularly where the Smith River is concerned. The Montana Environmental Information Center and Earthworks — two of the nonprofits behind the new initiative — have been central in the opposition to the Black Butte Copper Project, a proposed copper mine along one of the Smith’s main tributaries. But as Liebert suggests, the initiative takes aim at another major issue: the cost to the public of abandoned mines like Zortman-Landusky, where the state continues to spend more than $1 million annually on water treatment.
Hardrock mining watchdogs have taken their concerns to the ballot before in Montana, with considerable success. In 1998, an initiative to prohibit new cyanide leach mining statewide passed with 52 percent of the vote. When an industry-backed measure to reverse that ban appeared on the ballot six years later, 58 percent of voters rejected it.
Brooks anticipates pushback from the mining industry this year, too. However, past victories at the polls have him convinced the general public grasps the underlying issues. “Montanans understand the importance of clean water and protecting their own well-being from risky mining practices that contaminate water,” he says. “This is a small step in that same direction.”
The initiative is now under review by the state’s Legislative Services Division. If approved, it will go out for signature gathering later this spring.