Water quality predictions for 11 of Montana’s 12 major, modern hardrock mines were wrong, leading to major pollution problems that have contaminated drinking water, destroyed fish and wildlife habitat, and harmed private property. The damning conclusion from a report released today by Montana Trout Unlimited and Earthworks underscores systematic inadequacies in state law that have burdened taxpayers with lasting pollution and upwards of $170 million in mine cleanup costs.
“This report leaves no doubt that we need Initiative 186 to ensure more responsible mining and to properly protect clean water,” said David Brooks, Montana Trout Unlimited Executive Director. “The laws that govern mining are inadequate to protect our clean water from mine pollution. Stronger laws are needed to keep our waters safe, protect public health, and to ensure that the cost of cleanup is placed where it belongs: on the polluter, not the public.”
This study reviewed state and federal government documents for all major hardrock mines in Montana that began production after 1980, by which time the primary state and federal mining regulations were in place. Not only were water quality predictions underestimated in nearly every case, the research shows that reclamation bonds are inadequate to cover cleanup costs at 5 out of 8 of the mines that have ceased operations during that time (Beal, Zortman Landusky, Basin Creek, Kendall, MontanaTunnels).
“This report makes it clear that the state is already spending an enormous amount of taxpayer funds to clean up modern Montana mines, and those with lasting water pollution are a financial black hole,” said Bonnie Gestring, Earthworks’ Northwest Program Director. “We can’t afford for this to continue. I-186 will better protect our waters and our wallets.”
The study reviewed state financial assurance data at these mines, including the reclamation bond for each mine, any current liability to the public for documented unbonded cleanup costs, and public expenditures that resulted from inadequate bonding in the event of mine bankruptcy. This has resulted in upwards of $70 million in expenditures of public funds (state and federal), and an ongoing liability for unbonded clean-up costs of roughly $103.8 million, with an additional $1.9 million per year in perpetuity for ongoing water treatment costs at Zortman and Beal. The biggest cleanup expenditures are for mine sites that require water treatment in perpetuity.
“There are some folks that say Montana already sets the gold standard for mining laws in this country,” Gestring said. “If they still say that after seeing these numbers, they’re selling us fool’s gold. Three other mining states, New Mexico, Michigan and Maine, have passed laws against mines that require treatment for perpetual pollution. It’s the responsible thing to do.”
The full report can be found here: https://earthworks.org/publications/mt-track-record-report/
Initiative 186, a citizens initiative that will appear on Montana’s November ballot, is designed to ensure that new mines operate responsibly. It will hold mining companies accountable and no longer allow them to leave behind a toxic mess requiring perpetual treatment of water contaminated by acid mine drainage and heavy metals.