• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Montana: The Treasure State

Air Date: Week of

The ongoing conflict between two of Montana's greatest resources, its waters and its metals for mining, is spilling over into this years political scene. Producer Mary Boyle looks at how Montana's new Republican-dominated legislature has weakened clean water protections and what the consequences may be this November.


CURWOOD: Montana is known as the treasure state, and for generations the treasure was metals mined from the ground, especially gold and silver. The state seal reads, "Oro y Plata."

(Running water)

CURWOOD: But for many in the state today their treasure is its environment, especially its rivers and streams which draw thousands of rafters and sport fishers. These 2 conflicting visions of Montana's riches are behind a bitter referendum battle in the state this fall. After being strengthened in the 1970s, Montana's water quality laws were severely weakened last year, in part to help hard rock mining companies. Now a ballot drive is underway to toughen some of the standards again. Producer Mary Boyle explains.

BOYLE: In 1994, Montana voters put Republicans in charge of both houses of the state legislature for the first time in 13 years. And when the legislature convened in early 1995, it weakened the state's water quality standards. In some cases by as much as 1,000 times, allowing industry and agriculture to increase the amounts of toxins and cancer-causing chemicals they disposed into state waterways. Industry said the new standards were less onerous. Others saw it differently.

BUCHANAN: I think the last legislature put Montana in a position to be treated like a Third World country, and I think that's not in the tradition of good Montana public policy.

BOYLE: That's Gary Buchanan, co-chair of Montanans for Clean Water. A coalition of Democrats and Republicans, ranchers, environmentalists, and business folks backing a ballot initiative to repeal what they see as the worst of the 1995 reforms. Their efforts specifically target hard rock mining operations which under the '95 law can now dump untreated wastewater into groundwater and rivers. Mr. Buchanan says mining discharges some of the most toxic and difficult pollutants to clean up. It threatens drinking water and local fish populations.

BUCHANAN: Montana went from the top or near the top of water quality requirements for the Rocky Mountain region, and then after one session we ended up near the bottom on things like arsenic and cyanide. And I am not a chemist but I've been around long enough to know that arsenic and cyanide are not vitamins and can be quite harmful and deadly if misused.

BOYLE: This fall's initiative would force all new and expanding mines that use cyanide to treat and remove 80% of the pollution from their wastewater. The measure would not affect existing mines, and it does not make overall water quality laws any stricter. Backers say it's a moderate approach. But the mining industry fiercely opposes it. Jerome Anderson is a mining lobbyist and the campaign director for Montanans for Common Sense Water Laws.

ANDERSON: It's the opinion of a substantial majority of people in the mining industry that there probably is not technology available to meet this initiative. And of course the result of that would be that the development of those new projects that are in the mill today and the expansion of any of the existing mines would also be in jeopardy.

BOYLE: Specifically, the mining industry says 2 big projects could be threatened. A proposed mine along the Blackfoot River and the expansion of another in the northeastern part of the state. Jerome Anderson says the current standards are sufficient to protect water quality and that the initiative is a ploy to stop mining altogether.

ANDERSON: If it's simply to deal with water issues, then why didn't they file an initiative proposal that applies to all of the water dischargers in Montana?

BOYLE: The answer, says Dan Fraser, former chief of Montana's Water Quality Bureau and backer of the initiative, is that the current law gives mining special exemptions. So the industry needs special attention from the voters.

FRASER: The next industry that comes in and gets exclusions to treatment requirements I think should be next. But right now these treatment requirement exclusions are to benefit nobody other than the mining industry.

BOYLE: But many argue that mining benefits the entire state by providing well-paying jobs. Tammy Johnson directs a wise use group in the town of Whitehall, outside Butte. Her husband works at a nearby mine. Over a pop at a local pizza shop, she says a healthy environment requires a healthy economy.

JOHNSON: When people are financially able to care for themselves and their family, then they'll start thinking about what else they can do in terms of their community, in terms of their environment, in terms of their fellow human beings. But not until then. How do we reach that point? I don't know, but I think that we need to have very reasonable, scientifically-based laws and regulations that deal with our environment.

BOYLE: But mining doesn't have the presence it once had in the Treasure State, accounting today for about 2% of the economy. Agriculture and tourism lead the way.

(A fishing line is reeled. Man: "Fifty, 70 yards of this stuff takes a long time.")

BOYLE: At his sporting goods shop in Gardner, on the edge of Yellowstone Park, Richard Parks threads a fishing reel. He does not oppose mining but his business depends on clean water. Mr. Parks hopes the water initiative will send a message that polluters cannot sacrifice water for short-term profits.

PARKS: Certainly there's an effort on the part of the polluters to give the impression that there's a bandwagon out there for saying we should trade today's pot of porridge and never mind that tomorrow it's inedible. And I think people are watching, and they should be watching. And when we win, that should say very clearly the day of that policy is numbered.

BOYLE: The latest polls show that 67% of Montanans are in favor of the initiative. However, the mining industry plans to spend millions to block it. So far it's outspent supporters 10 to 1. As Mark Twain said, whiskey's for drinking, water's for fighting. And in Montana, this looks to be one heck of a fight. For Living on Earth, I'm Mary Boyle.



Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth