The idea started in Montana and now is spreading across the west: no new mining unless you can prove up front that you won’t need perpetual water treatment when you shut down. The same folk who stopped mines that use cyanide in Montana are behind this new move.

The Water Environment Federation (WEF) reports that Senator John Andreason, Republican from Boise, Idaho is pushing a bill to ban the opening of new mines that require long-term water treatment. Andreason has an alternative bill that would require companies to post a bond to cover the costs if Idaho is left with a water problem at the end of mining. The Idaho Mining Association opposes an outright ban. The Senate Resources and Environment Committee approved “printing” both bills last week.

Background from the WEF report:

A study of 183 mines in 14 states showed that in all of them company officials predicted they would comply with water quality regulations, but 76 percent violated water quality standards. The study was conducted by Kuipers and Associates of Butte, Mont. and Buka Environment of Boulder, Colo., for the environmental group Earthworks. The study undercut claims by mining companies that their new mines are clean.

In July 2006, Idaho Department of Environmental Quality officials criticized Atlanta Gold Corp. for substandard construction of lined ponds to treat arsenic leaking from the old mine. The Forest Service halted filling the second of the two settling ponds. The Forest Service holds only $11,000 in bonds from Atlanta Gold to cover the costs of perpetual treatment of the water. Atlanta Gold hopes open a mine on a tributary of the Boise River 60 miles upstream from Boise. Opponents warn that its operations could pollute the Boise River, a source of drinking water, irrigation and recreation. The company’s environmental review is on hold as it attempts to raise more money.

In late 2005, the Montana Environmental Quality Council proposed this requirement for a mine reclamation plan:

The reclamation plan must conclusively demonstrate that, after… [two years] … no treatment of surface or ground water for carcinogens or toxins will be required to meet water quality standard at the point of discharge.

In early 2006 the Board of Environmental Review amended the language of the proposed rule change to lower the standard of proof that water treatment would not be required beyond two years from “conclusively demonstrate” to “demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence.” This was considered to reduce the 100 percent guarantee to a 70 percent probability.

In a study of the economic impact of this regulations entitled Economic Impacts of The Petition for Proposed Amendment of ARM 17.24.116 Pertaining to Hard Rock Mining Applications requirements for Operating Permits issued in February 2006 is this conclusion:

As a result ofadopting the proposed rule as amended in January 2006, an estimated 50 to 90 percent of future metal mining economic output and 10 to 25 percent of future industrial mineral mining economic output in Montana would be prevented from developing…Overall, these two mining sectors comprise less than 1.5 percent of Montana’s total economy in terms of jobs, wages, economic output and tax revenue. Therefore, the state economy as a whole would not be significantly affected by the proposed rule. However, mining’s prominent history in Montana culture, its concentration in select counties, and the fact that mining jobs are high-paying would ensure that localized significant effects would occur.

There are, however, many views of Montana as an economy unto itself. Jared Diamond’s Collapse is to be found in nearly every bookstore and it paints a depressing picture of a state in the thrall of wealth colonialists. In a publication from the Property & Environment Research Center (PERC) Kendra Okonski, a native of Montana who now lives in England, doesn’t accept Diamond’s treatment of Montana. In her essay, “Montana: On the Verge of Collapse?” she argues that Diamond has misread Montana’s history and misunderstands its environmental conditions and their causes. A sample of her evaluation of Diamond’s book:

“Diamond advocates regulations as the solution to Montana’s environmental problems. But with respect to the state’s toxic wastes, a new, creative and decentralized approach is needed. Diamond’s claims are not only wrong and intended to alarm the reader, they are counterproductive….if we are genuinely concerned about pollution emanating from old mines, we should look at the whole range of reasons why cleanup is not occurring, including the incentives (and Disincentives) created by regulations.”

Here are some points about living in Montana sent me by a colleague from many years ago:

  • As you will note in the PERC report Montana is a state relying almost entirely on handouts and very high tax rates. Actually some of the highest in the country. There are two classes: wealthy people who have moved in and the rest who work for them at minimum wage.
  • Each major city in Montana has as its cornerstone of the economy the government including universities, airbases, government, prisons, research facilities, and so on. Only Billings hascore retail and medical businesses as it is the biggest city within 500 miles.
  • Farming and ranching provide little support to the economy or job market as is the case in Wyoming which is booming with tremendous budget surpluses.
  • There are at least two dozen NGOs headquartered in Montana mostly in Bozeman, who have successfully attacked the resource industry and thereby stopped mining, oil, gas, and timber.
  • The mining companies appear to have abandoned Montana and are not coming back. Case in point is the coal bed methane industry. Montanans have fought it tooth and nail and there are only a few dozen wells in place while in Wyoming there are over 15,000 wells in place.

Back to Jared Diamond. He says he is booed by environmentalists when he talks about business: “They call me a sell-out, say I’m corrupt and that I’ve taken the money and leapt into bed with big business.” The biologist, thinker and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer has aroused the ire of some sections of the green movement by co-operating with large companies – and insisting that business has a role to play in remedying environmental problems. Pollution, desertification and stress on water supplies, he believes, could potentially cause the ­collapse of modern life, in much the same way that the overuse of resources and external environmental changes have causedthe demise of earliercivilizations. But Prof Diamond sticks to his arguments – businesses play such a largerole in modern life thatit would be difficult toimagine progress on key environmental issues without the co-operation of the corporations.

Moreover, he says, an awareness of environmental issues in business thinking is a good discipline for managers, and can even save companies money. This is because taking into account environmental considerations – such as how to clean up pollution or minimize use of resources – requires managers to consider vital business issues such as waste and inefficiencies, and relationships with employees and consumers.

He says: “If you think about it, it makes sense. If you cut down on the amount of resources you need to bring into an area, that saves money. If you reduce the amount of waste you produce, that saves money. Using less energy saves money too. And if you make the water dirty, that could be a health problem for your employees. If you alienate the local community, and you are operating in a democracy, you may get thrown out or you may get people trying to disrupt your business.”

I wonder if his next book will deal with Idaho.