HELENA – A bill to prohibit the state from permitting mines that require perpetual remediation was voted down on party lines and tabled in committee on Wednesday.
Proponents argued that the bill would encourage responsible mining and that taxpayers have often been stuck with unending costs after companies walk away.
Mining lobbyists countered that the bill was poorly written and that it would stifle Montana’s mining industry, potentially costing hundreds of jobs.
Rep. Nate McConnell, D-Missoula, brought House Bill 626 before the House Natural Resources Committee, a bill requiring a metal mines permit applicant to design a reclamation plan that avoids the need for perpetual remediation, such as treating contaminated water. The act would prohibit the Montana Department of Environmental Quality from permitting a mine if remediation was required in perpetuity.
McConnell opened discussion on HB626 by talking about his great grandfather, a West Virginia coal miner. He understood the sacrifices of his great grandfather and what mining means for this country, but 100 years ago, not much thought was given to how mining affects the world around the mine, he said.
“This bill is a reflection of how we can think about mining’s effects on the world around it,” he said. “This bill is a common-sense way to ensure there will be no lasting impact by asking the mining company how it will prevent perpetual remediation.”
HB626 works on “good faith” with miners designing reclamation plans, he added.
The bill counted 17 supporters such as Trout Unlimited, Earthworks and the Montana Environmental Information Center. Several cited the proposed Black Butte Copper mine located a mile from a tributary of the Smith River as a catalyst for the bill.
“It puts the protection of our iconic waterways like the Smith River and other streams and lakes at the forefront of mining activity before any mineral extraction occurs,” said Rich Hohne of Bozeman-based Simms Fishing Products. “It does not prohibit mineral extraction, which is a historic portion of our economy, however, it allows for it in a responsible and prudent manner.”
“I need clean water to do my job,” said Smith River outfitter Brandon Boedecker.
Other proponents pointed to the economic impact of tourism versus mining.
“Outdoor recreation is a $5.8 billion industry dwarfing the economic revenue from mineral extraction activities,” said Ben Bullis of the American Fly-Fishing Trade Association, adding that one of the biggest employers in mining has been through reclamation of past projects.
Mining representatives challenged HB626 both on the bill’s language and consequences to permitting.
“The first thing that occurred to me is the language really makes this internally inconsistent,” said Tammy Johnson, executive director of the Montana Mining Association.
The bill does not define “remediation,” and long-term measures such as engineered wetlands, sediment controls or disposing of groundwater with grassy swells could fall under the bill’s “perpetual” purview, she said.
“This bill could very easily preclude some very elegant reclamation plans,” Johnson said.
HB626 was not an attempt at ensuring clean water, but an attempt to eliminate the mining industry in Montana, said Ronda Wiggers, representing Barrick Golden Sunlight Mine near Whitehall. The bill creates a standard virtually no mine in the world could or should meet, she added.
HB626 unfairly singles out mining with a higher standard when other industries such as landfills also discharge water and require remediation, Wiggers said.
“This isn’t about protecting water quality. If it was, it would apply to all water discharge in the state,” she said. “Water treatment is good for water, it’s how we have good quality water. It’s a lack of water treatment that should be a concern.”
Under questioning from committee members, state officials testified that all ore bodies are created differently, but mines do exist in Montana that do not require perpetual remediation.
Rep. Kerry White, R-Townsend, questioned whether a mining company could circumvent the law by proposing a 1,000-year remediation plan rather than perpetuity.
Rep. Bob Brown, R-Thompson Falls, expressed his concerns that the bill could cause mining companies to provide inaccurate information.
“If I’m sitting on a multibillion dollar body of ore, am I going to be honest?” he asked.
McConnell closed on the bill reflecting on a float trip down the Smith River when his wife was pregnant with their daughter. He thought of his great grandfather and he felt a responsibility to uphold and respect the value of his labors, McConnell said.
“But it’s also my duty to instill in my daughter those values passed on to me … that includes leaving it like you found it,” he said.
The bill failed on an 11-7 party-line vote and was tabled.