By TOM REED
Just west of our little ranch on North Willow Creek lies a town that once burst at the seams with mines and miners. Pony, Montana, boasted 5,000 people, banks, bars, schools, churches and a rail-line. Mines with romantic names like Boss Tweed and Clipper dotted the hills above town. Between the 1870s and the 1920s, millions of dollars of gold came out of the hills. After the 1920s, when the gold played out, so did the people. Today, our little town upstream of the ranch has one heck of a fun bar and fewer than 200 really good people and a post office.
Mining in Pony’s early days was anything but clean and the old timers left behind tailings from the diggings. The headwaters of our creek are still polluted and do not support fish. Miles downstream here on the ranch, a healthy population of brown trout has rebounded from the decades of pollution, in part thanks to today’s modern mining industry itself. A few years ago, our county and organizations like Trout Unlimited got together with folks at the Golden-Sunlight Mine in Whitehall and for a few years, tailings from those old mines were hauled out and processed once again for gold at the modern plant.
This land we live on feeds us. Here we are growing crops and two great little kids. We eat the whitetail deer we shoot on the place in the fall and dig into one heck of a kitchen garden that we manage to eek out during the short Montana summers. This is a place, with booming Bozeman an hour to the east, that increases in property value every year. We dream of passing this ranch on to our kids and maybe even their kids and we hope that generations from now, this land, and our little stream, will still be raising healthy food and healthy kids.
Maybe someday mining will make a comeback in the Tobacco Roots. When it does, maybe our family members will find work there. I hope the mining will be done right, with real care and consideration for those of us downstream and for our property values. That’s why I’m supporting I-186, an initiative that is pro-mining but anti-pollution.
Too often, even in recent years, some fly-by-night, often foreign-owned hard rock mining companies have come into Montana headwaters, provided good, but temporary jobs, and left us with a mess of toxic pollution to clean up while they retreat to their overseas mansions.
There are good mines in this state, and those mines will keep on providing good jobs when I-186 passes. But to those companies that would pollute our clean water, gut our property values, destroy our fisheries and leave us holding the bag, I-186 says no thanks.
I-186 is simple. It ensures that the state’s mining experts, the Department of Environmental Quality, would have the ability to deny a mine permit to any new hard rock mine that would leave our streams polluted forever. Right now, the state’s experts have no way to say no. A company can come in from, say, Australia, build a mine, run out of money, declare bankruptcy, forfeit the bond, leave behind toxic water, and scoot. Back home Down Under, they can thumb their noses at Montana authority.
I-186 will require that all new hard rock mines show proof that they will not leave behind perpetual water pollution after they cease operations. It can be done. It’s being done right now in Montana at mines like Stillwater. It’s being done in states like Michigan and New Mexico that have passed similar laws. Mining can consistently be done responsibly —without permanent water pollution— and I-186 will ensure this.
What’s more, the initiative would only apply to new hard rock mining permits. Any mine that was permitted before we vote Yes on I-186 in November is not held to that standard, even if they choose to expand their operations after the law goes into effect. It’s right there in the ballot language for everyone to read.
What I like about I-186 is that it says “prove it” to newly proposed mines. Prove that you won’t pollute our water forever and leave everyone downstream, from ranchers to municipalities, to deal with it. That seems like a pretty good thing.
But consider this: At the headwaters of Montana’s famous Smith River a foreign mining company, Sandfire Resources, wants to build a copper mine. They spend tens — maybe hundreds — of thousands of dollars on a PR campaign to tell Montanans that they will “do it right from the start,” that they are a “modern mine” that they are environmentally responsible and will not leave perpetual pollution. Yet when push comes to shove, they want us to trust them. They don’t support I-186, which would provide the very parameters they claim to want to adhere to, to “do it right.” They, and a handful of other foreign-controlled mining companies, are spending millions of dollars to fight a law that fights pollution and promotes responsible mining. If you claim to be doing it “right” why would you fight a law that requires you to it right?
They want us to trust them. Here’s who I trust: Montana voters who care about clean rivers and our Montana way of life. I trust they’ll vote for clean water, for property rights and for our future in November.
Tom Reed is a director for Trout Unlimited and is co-director of Yes For Responsible Mining.