An 'unfair, inflexible' bid to clean Montana's water

  • Cartoon of bathtub and directive to Montana miners

    Greg Siple

Francis Bardanouve is not the man you might expect to see leading one of the year's most contested environmental initiatives. A rancher from Harlem, Mont., he spent nearly 30 years in the state Legislature, where he was known as a conservative Democrat. But along with a businessman, a retired rancher and a Republican legislator, Bardanouve is spearheading Montana's Clean Water Initiative, which supporters call a common-sense method of keeping long-lived mining wastes such as arsenic and heavy metals out of water.

When the state Legislature relaxed water pollution requirements for Montana's booming mining industry in 1995, environmentalists struggled to find the best way to respond.

They decided that to beat the well-funded mining industry they needed a very narrow initiative - Initiative 122 addresses only one aspect of the law and affects only some mines. Then the activists rounded up an unlikely coalition to lead the campaign.

Their strategy wasn't foolproof. Opponents - mostly miners and mining companies - maintain the initiative singles out their industry with standards that are impossible to meet, and they have raised $1.8 million to fight it. Most spending goes to radio and television advertising, and it appears to be paying off.

There's no logical reason for this initiative, argues Jerome Anderson, a veteran lobbyist who runs Citizens for Common Sense Water Laws/Against Initiative 122, a group set up and funded primarily by five mining companies that have been cited for 56 water quality violations in Montana.

Popular Gov. Marc Racicot, a moderate Republican with an 80 percent approval rating, delivered another blow to supporters when he offered to sift through the arguments and deliver his opinion. He came down squarely on the side of the miners.

The initiative is "unfair, inflexible, imprecise and inconsistent," Racicot concluded in September, "and its benefits to public health, aquatic life, fisheries and water quality range from negligible to illusory."

I-122 would apply only to new hard-rock mines or expanding mines that use cyanide. It would have no effect on the state's talc, coal or gravel mines.

Like other polluters such as cities and factories, mines get water discharge permits from the state government. Current law allows "mixing zones," which are designated runs of groundwater or surface water. Within those zones, state standards can be exceeded. However, at the downstream edge of the zone, all standards must be met.

A mixing zone is the practical application of the old adage that "the solution to pollution is dilution." But I-122 would mean that discharges from some mines must meet water quality standards sooner - at the end of the pipe or the ditch that feeds into the mixing zone.

TV ads from the opposition have shown people drinking water downstream from a mine. The ads claim the initiative would cost the state up to 2,700 jobs and $400 million in state and local tax revenue.

"Their numbers are fantasy," said Gary Buchanan, co-chair of Montanans for Clean Water, the initiative's sponsor. His group maintains the mining industry is fighting the initiative because it is cheaper than complying with it.

"If they can buy the election for less than it costs to clean up the water, then that's what they'll do," said Stan Fraser of Helena, an organizer for Montanans for Clean Water, which has raised only about $200,000.

But early in October, Commissioner of Political Practices Ed Argenbright ruled that the anti-I-122 group had violated state law for a six-month period by using a misleading name. The name "Citizens for Common Sense Water Laws' was inaccurate, he said, since a majority of the group's members were in the mining industry. State law requires that groups backing or fighting initiatives use names that accurately reflect the economic interests of most contributors.

The group could be fined up to $1.6 million, three times the amount of money it spent on advertising in the six-month period ending in September. Since that time, however, people outside the industry have joined the group. This prompted Argenbright to rule the name legal, even though almost all of its money still comes from mining companies. The issue is unlikely to be resolved before the election. I-122 opponents have hired a lawyer and asked Argenbright to review his decision.

Push polls

During the first week of October, thousands of Montanans received dinnertime phone calls from a telemarketing group called Midwest Research. The callers said they were conducting a political poll, but instead of asking the demographic information required of a poll, they asked leading questions about I-122, putting a negative slant on the initiative.

Such "push polls" that plant suspicion or doubt in the mind of voters are condemned by reputable pollsters. Supporters of the initiative have blasted the opposition for using these polls, but Anderson says his group has nothing to do with them.

Legitimate polls, however, say I-122 is slipping. A Lee Newspapers poll in May found 67 percent of voters supported the measure, 17 percent opposed it and 16 percent were undecided. Since then, the advertising blitz kicked in, Racicot condemned the measure, and a late September poll found I-122 with a lead of only 46 percent to 42 percent, with 14 percent undecided.

The writer works in Livingston, Montana. Heather Abel contributed to this report.

Note: this article is part of a feature package on ballot initiatives that includes these other articles:

- Has big money doomed direct democracy?

- Polluted waters divide Oregon

- Will Idaho voters derail nuclear trains?

- Colorado voters decide fate of 3 million acres

- Western hunters debate ethics tooth and claw

Copyright © 1996 HCN and Scott McMillion

High Country News Classifieds