Court enforces a healthy environment

  A provision in Montana's constitution guaranteeing residents a "clean and healthful environment" has as much bite as bark, thanks to a recent Montana Supreme Court ruling. In October, the court unanimously agreed that that the constitution protects the state's resources from actual, proven damage, and from potential harm as well.

"Our constitution does not require that dead fish float on the surface of our state's rivers and streams before its farsighted environmental protections can be invoked," wrote Justice Terry Trieweiler.

It was the court's first chance to interpret the provision, which was enacted when the state re-wrote its constitution in 1972. The opportunity arose from a lawsuit filed by conservation groups against the state for permitting the Seven Up Pete Joint Venture gold-mining project to pump water with high levels of arsenic into the Blackfoot River.

For now, the mining case is back in district court, where the judge must decide if the law exempting "pump-tests' from environmental review is unconstitutional.

But the decision itself leaves many questions unanswered. "It's a first step," says John North, attorney with the Department of Environmental Quality. "The court indicated that a "clean and healthful environment" is a pretty high standard and that's about all we have here."

*Andrea Barnett