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I-186 Rally

Colin Cooney with Trout Unlimited addresses supporters of I-186 at the Capitol Tuesday. The initiative asks Montana voters to prohibit the state from issuing mining permits that include perpetual treatment of water.

Supporters of a citizen initiative aimed at limiting mine pollution in Montana rallied in front of the state Capitol Tuesday, saying they collected nearly 20,000 more signatures than legally required to put the measure in front of Montana voters. 

YES for Responsible Mining, a group backing I-186, said they collected 45,000 signatures from across the state and submitted them to election officials. Under Montana election law, the initiative needed 25,468 signatures, including 5 percent of the voters in 34 state House districts to qualify.

County election administrators still must verify the signatures and submit them to the Secretary of State for approval for the ballot – a process expected to be completed next month.

Supporters have billed I-186 as a commonsense mining law that would prohibit the state from issuing permits for new mines if the operating plan requires the permanent treatment of water after mine has closed. Pointing to examples of environmental degradation from mining, including where the state has assumed cleanup costs, the ballot committee spent seven weeks collecting signatures for the June 22 submission deadline.

An opposing group, Stop I-186 to Protect Miners & Jobs, rallied in Butte last week and argued that the measure jeopardizes good-paying mining jobs. While backers of the initiative say they crafted it to restrict new mining permits, opponents contend that ambiguous language could affect existing mines and invite litigation from environmental interests.

Earlier this month, the initiative survived a legal challenge from the Montana Mining Association, which asked the Montana Supreme Court to declare I-186 legally insufficient. The court dismissed the lawsuit on June 19.

“Our opponents have been trying to keep I-186 off the ballot,” said Colin Cooney with Montana Trout Unlimited and part of the coalition making up YES for Responsible Mining. “They filed a frivolous lawsuit to try to silence the more than 45,000 Montanans who signed the petition and block all Montana voters from having a say on I-186.”

Cooney was joined by more than 20 supporters of the initiative Tuesday, and challenged the characterization of the measure as a job killer, saying that it is about holding mining companies accountable.

Opponents warn that the measure could have a chilling effect on the future of mining in Montana.

“The supporters of I-186 aren’t being up front with Montana voters about how this would impact our livelihoods,” Dave Galt, executive director of the opposition campaign, said in a statement. “The Montanans who have signed this measure did so under false pretenses and throughout our campaign we will focus on exposing I-186 for what it really is – an attack on Montana’s economy and an attempt to ban future mining in our state.”

Those at Tuesday’s rally pointed to industries in Montana that depend on clean water.

“Not only do the 15 employees working for us depend on the world-class fisheries here in Montana, hundreds of guides rowing our boats depend on the cold and clean water for their livelihood,” said Justin Waayenberg, general manager and CEO of Adipose Boatworks in Helena. “These are good paying manufacturing, outfitting and guiding jobs that support families.”

Brian Smith, owner of Blackfoot River Brewing Company, noted that clean water is important to Montana’s craft brewing industry. He questioned the mining industry’s commitment to responsible mining for opposing I-186.

I-186 field director Megan Harbaugh was the last to speak and said the initiative took about 100 signature gatherers, split equally between volunteers and paid staff. The ballot committee will await the results of the review from election officials, and if successful, will begin a “grassroots” campaign before November’s election, she said.

Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin

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Natural Resources Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter / Assistant Editor for The Independent Record.

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