...but let's not forget about the past

  • Land Lindbergh

 

Dear HCN,

In your Dec. 22, 1997, issue, I was quoted as saying, "What it might take is for some people to die before people start sitting up and saying, 'Take that pollution out of rivers.' "

I didn't mean by that there will have to be violent confrontations, or even that people will immediately die from pollutants in the Blackfoot River. I was trying to point out that the public does not normally respond to a crisis of this size and complexity unless there has been a sudden and dramatic human health issue associated with it. My best guess is that we are not going to see such a threat with this project. The major problems with the McDonald Mine are liable to be slow and cumulative in making their appearance, and insidious in their long-term persistence. The mine may well be long gone when our truly serious problems begin to surface.

On yet another matter, the mining industry insists on categorizing all of us who are concerned with the design, location and operation of the mine as environmental obstructionists, hell-bent on closing down mining in the West before moving on to destroy timber and livestock.

Quite the contrary. Those of us living in the Blackfoot realize the importance of all these activities. Many of us feel that mining activities not only can take place, but should be a part of our lives and livelihoods, but only at the right time, in the right place, and in the right way. Obviously, under Montana's present political situation, those of us with significant concerns are not going to determine what those conditions might be. But on the other hand, the gold-mining industry must not be allowed to set those requirements by manipulating certain laws, rules and regulations, which is exactly what has happened here over the last few years.

The activities of the industry during the past two legislative sessions have been awesome in their domineering influence on our political process, and devastatingly effective in the revision and destruction of a significant portion of the standards and controls under which it would have to operate ... certainly reminiscent of a past which most in this state thought we had progressed well beyond.

Initiative I-122, the Montana Clean Water Initiative, was really a desperate and clearly inadequate attempt to rescue at least a part of our previous position as one of the most progressive states on controlling mine pollutants in our waters. Basically, I-122 would have required new and expanding heap-leach mines to meet water quality standards at the point of permitted discharge into state waters, and not somewhere down the stream at the end of a so-called "mixing zone" after the pollutants had been diluted by clean water.

Initial public support for I-122 was very high, but as the story pointed out, enthusiastic volunteers and limited campaign funds were in the end defeated by the well-organized and professionally directed opponents, who had access to what apparently was the unlimited financial backing of some of the major mining companies operating in Montana.

And now a series of events with the Department of Environmental Quality, which HCN discussed in the Dec. 22 issue, has led Gov. Marc Racicot to undertake a personal investigation of conditions in the department. The governor is, in my opinion, a fine person with many talents and good intentions, but he definitely should get on top of this situation while he still can.

As the permitting of the McDonald Gold Mine lurches toward an uncertain conclusion, the assurances by industry that there are no significant risks have to be balanced against the only things we know for certain: the obvious results of past gold-mining practices, and the present state of affairs with ongoing gold mining operations.

Therefore, it becomes a pretty bleak situation to look forward to for most of us here in the Blackfoot Valley if the McDonald Gold Mine is eventually permitted for operation by the state of Montana.

With many thanks for your efforts in the last issue of the High Country News ...

Land Lindbergh
Greenough, Montana

Land Lindbergh is a former rancher who lives in Montana's Blackfoot Valley.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.