Vote yes for I-186 and clean water

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One of the things I’m proudest of about Montana is that our constitution asserts clean air and clean water are our birthright. Those of us who live here are accustomed to these truths; they inform our daily actions, and our values, Likewise, people who visit come here believing — knowing — Montana is a better place than wherever they were before.

It’s for this reason that I, as a geologist, enthusiastically support I-186, which requires any new hard-rock, metal mines to assume the cost of cleaning up without leaving behind permanent water pollution, rather than passing the clean-up costs to Montana taxpayers. It’s a common sense, much needed tweak to our metal mine permitting laws. There are mines in Montana that are not polluting our groundwater, such as Stillwater. Why would we want to reward—not just allow, but to compensate, those companies whose business plans acknowledge they will poison our water, and that we, not they, will have to clean it up?

I-186 doesn’t stop a single mine in Montana — it is simply a good and prudent business move, if much belated, that requires the multinational companies working in our state to be responsible for protecting our water. This initiative makes an important distinction that the newly water-impoverished states of New Mexico and Michigan have realized, with passage of similar initiatives: it’s our water, not theirs.

Whether we pump it from our wells to drink it, or irrigate crops and gardens, or provide it for our livestock — whether we fish in it, swim in it, canoe and raft and float it — water means different things to each of us, but means everything to all of us. “You don’t miss your water ‘til your well goes dry,” sings Graham Parsons. There are so many ways to lose water: to heat and drought, to deforestation; the quickest way however is to have it be poisoned.

As taxpayers, you and I are still paying for nearly 300 abandoned mines around the state — hundreds of millions of dollars shelled out, and more that we still have yet to finish paying for. Unfortunately, I-186 won’t be retroactive, but it will require future operators to assume responsibility for protecting our water.

Sometimes the mining companies don’t just cut and run when “profitability” of a resource dips or declines, but smoke the land and subsurface water down to its last nub before a mine plays out. Without I-186, there’s a financial incentive for companies to do exactly this, traveling all the way down to the bitter end of bankruptcy, knowing Montana taxpayers will be there to take care of them. There have been five major mining bankruptcies in Montana, including W.R. Grace’s asbestos mine outside Libby. None of the companies’ reclamation bonds ever came close to paying the full cost of clean-up and long-term water treatment.

If they can’t take care of our water — aren’t willing to commit to that — why would we possibly trust them? As a geologist, it has always amazed and frustrated me to see mining companies representing the architecture of the buried world beneath us as being manageable, able to be controlled as if with magic valves, and always contained, with no harm, ever, to anything.

I remember how in the early days of fracking, big oil and gas companies were spreading the bald-faced lies that fracturing brittle underground rock formations with subsurface depth charges of dynamite would in no way create fissures or microfissures that would allow the toxic fracture fluids to contaminate groundwater above the zones of the blasting. Say something ten thousand times, scientists tell us, and a lie becomes a truth in one part of the brain — is modified, bent, altered—even though a distant part of the brain still remembers, knows, it’s a lie.

Montana is where our children are born, and where many come here to make a stand. It’s hard to imagine our state ever running out of clean water, but stranger things happen every day, it seems. And in the meantime, we keep getting the bills to help keep our groundwater and surface water clean, while the old loophole keeps allowing mining companies who skulk away when the mine plays out or commodity prices drop, leaving us to pick up the tab. And without I-186 in place, why wouldn’t they let us pay for it, rather than them having to? It’s not good manners and it’s not good business.

I heartily endorse I-186, Montanans standing up for Montana’s water, and am voting yes to clean water and financial responsibility.

Rick Bass is an author who lives in Yaak Valley, where he is a board member of the Yaak Valley Forest Council and Save the Yellowstone Grizzlies.

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