Closing Range

Oro y Plata Forever

If this language had been law way back when, there’d be no Butte Superfund, sure, but no Butte, either

The second major ballot issue Montana faces this Election Day is I-186, which Green proponents misleadingly call “Yes for Responsible Mining,” with yes really meaning no.

I’ll start by playing with the tea leaves a little. Ballot initiatives, which I don’t like, need signatures from at least 5 percent of voters in each of 34 House districts. Which districts? Yep, for the most part, the college towns, and college students, provided the most signatures.

In Missoula, HD 100 got 1,550, HD 95, 1,140: with HD 91 (which includes the UM campus, of course) scoring the most at 1,597 signatures. In Bozeman, HD 61 gave 866 and HD 62 gave 997.

Care to guess which “non-college” House district ranked highest? Good for you, right again, HD 5 (Whitefish) produced 948 signatures.

In Flathead County, only one House district failed to meet the 5 percent threshold, HD 4 where I live – only 262 signatures, 269 were needed.

What about Lincoln County, where the Troy, Montanore, and Rock Creek mines are on everyone’s mind these days, plus the aftermath of the Zonolite vermiculite disaster? I-186 got 58 signatures total against 482 needed. What does that tell you?

Overall, however, that’s what happens with initiatives. Special interests organize and usually pay enough signature gatherers who work mostly where people gather – universities, public events, not door to door in eastern Montana.

I-186’s supporting groups, led by Trout Unlimited and Montana Environmental Information Center, hired Montana Public Interest Research Group (MTPIRG) canvassers out of Missoula, paying about $16.33 per hour. Remember, the PIRG network was founded by that great capitalist and popular presidential candidate Ralph Nader.

As of August, national Trout Unlimited looks to have plowed about $127,000 into I-186, with other groups (Audubon, American Rivers, Earthworks, Greater Yellowstone, Montana Conservation Voters) rendering “in-kind” support. “Grassroots” money comprises little, with only a handful of donations over $100 – but one is interesting: $100,000 from a New York foundation, then refunded, then re-donated by the guy who owns the foundation, one David Leuschen.

Mr. Leuschen apparently grew up in Montana, went to Dartmouth, then traded energy at Goldman Sachs. Now, he runs Riverstone Holdings, a $38-billion “private equity firm focusing on the energy sector.” So, “energy” enables a life where Mr. Leuschen can afford giving $250,000 to the U.S. Ski Team every year, and a trophy ranch on the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone. The irony is hard to ignore.

As for the mining sector, Golden Sunlight, Hecla, Montana Resources, Sandfire, Sibanye Stillwater, with the Montana Mining Association giving $909,000 as of Sept. 1’s report, they are throwing down big money, as they must.

I-186 isn’t nearly as messy as I-185, so even I could figure out pretty fast that a more honest initiative title would be “No More Mining, Ever.”

Under current Montana law, mining permits “may” be denied, but denials must “state the reasons for denial, and be based on a preponderance of the evidence.” OK?

I-186 would require all new mine operating plans to include measures “sufficient to prevent the pollution of water without the need for perpetual treatment,” and if not, the “department shall [not may] deny an application” unless there is “clear and convincing evidence” that no treatment would be required.

Bottom line, if there is any possibility that any discharge water from a mine (any mine, not just hard-rock) will need long-term treatment, the state “shall deny” that mine. Period, end of story, and end of mining.

Would our legislators vote to kill a critical sector of Montana’s economy, with pay scales three times Montana’s average? Heck no, so Greens tried, and unfortunately succeeded, in putting it on the ballot instead.

If this language had been law way back when, there’d be no Butte Superfund, sure, but no Butte, either. No Anaconda. Not much Great Falls, probably no East Helena, maybe not even Montana itself.

What about the West? Arizona: Copper State. Nevada: Silver. Idaho: Gem. California? Golden, although they pretend it was the grass in them thar hills. Montana? We’re the Treasure State, and our state seal reads Oro y Plata – then, now, and I hope, always.