Clean water: Groups want mine reclamation measure on November ballot

Water-storage ponds on the site of the Zortman-Landusky mines. (Lange Containment Systems Inc.)

Montana conservationists are looking to place an initiative on the November ballot that would require new hardrock mines to present a reclamation plan before receiving a permit to begin operations, according to paperwork filed this week with the Montana Secretary of State.

Proponents of the measure say the reclamation plans are needed to avoid the environmental disasters of Montana’s past, including that caused by the Mike Horse Mine on the Upper Blackfoot River and the Zortman-Landusky mine in the state’s north-central reaches.

“This initiative is about protecting Montana taxpayers and our clean water, and holding foreign mining companies accountable,” said David Brooks, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited. “When mining companies file for bankruptcy and leave their toxic waste behind, Montana taxpayers get stuck with cleanup costs.”

Advocates of the ballot measure say acid drainage at the Mike Horse Mine has caused lasting harm to the Upper Blackfoot River. Because of past mining operations, an estimated 26 million gallons of acid drainage must be captured and treated each year, much of it at the expense of taxpayers.

Mining waste left behind at Zortman-Landusky has also netted a hefty fee, costing Montana taxpayers $26 million to address. The ongoing and permanent treatment of polluted water from the mine costs an additional $2.5 million each year.

“Montana’s outdoor heritage is threatened by irresponsible mining practices,” said Hilary Hutcheson, a fly fishing guide and ballot supporter. “Future mining must be done responsibly to ensure we don’t lose the things that make Montana special.”

As filed, the initiative would require “new hardrock mines in Montana to have a reclamation plan that provides clear and convincing evidence that the mine will not require perpetual treatment of water polluted by acid mine drainage or other contaminants such as arsenic, lead or mercury.”

Voters would have a choice of voting yes or no.

In order to make the November ballot under state law, the petition must be signed by at least 5 percent of the qualified electors in the state, including 5 percent in one-third of all legislative districts. Supporters said they expect to have the petition back from the Secretary of State soon and begin gathering signatures in March.