Give the mining industry a second chance...

  • Dave Skinner


Dear HCN,

As a thrice-starved-out Montanan, I have a different take on mining than writer Heather Abel in your Dec. 22, 1997, issue. There are aspects of mining and its politics that High Country News should not have glossed over.

A prime example is the so-called Clean Water Initiative, I-122. It failed in the 1996 general election because it was unclear and then the media miserably failed in their duty to explain it.

I-122's supporters didn't help. Their radio sound-bite is tattooed on my brain. Even now I can hear the lady saying I-122 was "a simple and specific law to protect Montana's clean water. Who could be against that?" Nobody, including me. But I can read and use a calculator. I-122 required that all point discharges from metal mines had to be treated to levels established by Title 75, Chapter 5, of the Montana Water Quality Act. Further, I-122 prohibited the use of stretches of rivers downstream from mines - so-called "mixing zones" - to dilute discharges. Both are fine; mines should keep their messes inside the fence.

But section 2-b of I-122 was bizarre. It specified that even if the wastewater contained toxics below the limits established by "75-5", it still had to be treated to remove 80 percent of whatever toxics existed. So, if your discharge was dirty as hell, fine, treat it to the 75-5 requirement. But if it was cleaner than the limits, you would still have to get rid of 80 percent of everything in the water, no matter how little there was. That was hardly "simple."

It was, however, pretty damned specific. The Montana Water Quality Act had been changed in 1995, partly because of the proposed McDonald Mine on the Blackfoot River. Test wells at the mine site showed that the groundwater had arsenic in it in excess of 0.18 parts per billion. And 0.18 ppb was the existing standard. So the groundwater was already - in advance of mining - in violation of the existing standard. The treatment technology to bring the groundwater down to 0.18 ppb, if it exists, probably would render the mine uneconomic. As a result, the new law changed the standard for arsenic to 18 ppb, which is still lower than the federal drinking water standard of 50 ppb. The lifetime cancer risk from drinking such a discharge went from one in a million to one in a thousand. Sounds bad until you realize that one in four of us get cancer at some point.

The revisions to the Montana Water Quality Act were done to make the McDonald Mine possible. And I-122 was written to make it and other mines impossible. I-122 would have effectively reinstated the old standards, but only for hardrock mines, and in a way that would have issues of mine hydrology perpetually tied up in court.

Rather than write something voters could understand, I-122's backers had decided to baffle "em with BS. Why? Because they had a hidden agenda: to make it difficult or impossible for industry, especially mining, to operate in Montana. Getting rid of corporate farms and big timber and foreign mining companies sounds good, but the truth is that it won't work economically. Take it from one who knows: Trying to make a living by working at tourism in the "last best place" is the last, worst option.

Some say tourism, at least, is stable, while mining booms and busts. But tourism is based on "fun money," and if the general economy goes flat, the fun money is the first that doesn't get spent. As for high tech, when the bottom fell out of the chip market in the fall of 1996, the Flathead Valley employer Semitool let 200 people go. Competition for snow-shoveling jobs that winter was fierce. In the same way, gold prices are low now, but they will come back, and it will be possible to extract those resources responsibly and profitably.

The world is not an ideal place. Most of us know the global marketplace does funny things and that if you want to be part of it, you have to make the most of whatever opportunities are there. A majority of Montanans feel that although mining's past (and present) is checkered with mistakes, miners are capable of learning from those mistakes.

Of course, the mining companies are another matter. Teaching them anything has been a battle, but things are changing, and the environmental movement deserves credit for that. There won't be any more Butte-style pits. There shouldn't be any more Summitvilles. There better not be any more spills at the Landusky mine.

But does that mean that there should never be a New World or McDonald mine? Both those projects are technically doable. The project engineers light up like pinball machines when they get a chance to tell how they're going to do it right. Even the managers and stockholders know they're going to have to do it right or not at all. They've finally owned up to the mistakes of the past, if not their own, at least those of others.

Societal pressure and law have changed the way things are done. Part of those changes were in the 1972 constitutional reforms. The reformers were people who hated being jerked around by suits in faraway boardrooms. Now a new bunch of suits, in the boardrooms of Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation, NRDC, MPC, and any number of acronym-soup groups, are picking the state apart. While Montanans desperately try to learn from the past, environmental activists try prevent the future from ever happening.

In spite of the long history of deceit that drained wealth from the state, they insist on confiscating (they say "save") what wealth remains through deception. And then environmentalists wonder why Montana's open hand of welcome is becoming a closed fist?

One thing besides the water is clear: The dirty activist crusade to keep Montana "pure" serves only to taint the essence of what makes Montana a great state with great people. The environmental movement in Montana and elsewhere is making a lot of mistakes, and utterly failing to learn from them. Whether they ever do doesn't matter. The defeat of I-122 makes it obvious that they're being told to move on.

Dave Skinner
Pueblo, Colorado

Dave Skinner was raised in Montana's Flathead Valley and now is a staff writer for People for the West.

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 [email protected].

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