Montana House passes mine wastewater funding bill

Author:
Updated:
Original:

HELENA, Mont. - A bill to create a state trust fund for water treatment at
contaminated mining sites next to the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation has
been approved by the Montana House.

Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy's House Bill 379, aimed at the former
Zortman-Landusky gold mines in the Little Rocky Mountains, cleared the
House by an 84 - 15 margin March 29. The measure will now be reviewed in
the Senate.

The Zortman-Landusky complex was for years operated by Zortman Mining Inc.,
a subsidiary of Pegasus Gold Corp. But Pegasus went bankrupt in 1998, and
the state and federal governments were forced to take over the company's
cleanup responsibilities at cyanide heap-leach mines. Fort Belknap tribal
leaders say contaminated water from the sites is polluting their
reservation.

Julia Doney, chairman of the Fort Belknap Community Council, told lawmakers
that the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes warned regulators about
potential contamination before the mining was approved, but the advice
simply was not heeded.

"The state brushed off our concerns and criticisms," she said. "Now, 25
years later, our worse fears have come to pass. We can't be expected to
bear the burden of permanent environmental destruction alone."

Two separate treatment plants operate at former open-pit operations, but
studies show that water coming off the complex may need to be purified
forever. However, funding that is now available for the task is expected to
run out in 2017; the proposed trust fund is designed to pay for additional
treatment afterwards.

Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, initially proposed creating the trust fund from
federal mineral lease and royalty income that's allocated to the state, but
he amended the bill in February to allow the money to be diverted from
another source.

As currently written, the trust would be built from proceeds now flowing
into a so-called "orphan-share" account created in 1997 as a way to pay for
environmental cleanup at sites where operators declared bankruptcy or are
otherwise deemed unable to pay their bills.

The House Appropriations Committee recently voted - and the full House
concurred - to allow about $1.2 million a year to be moved from the
"orphan-share" account to a new Zortman-Landusky trust. If approved by the
Senate and Gov. Brian Schweitzer, the transfer would begin July 1. The
Montana Board of Investments Fund would then provide oversight.

"Water does not have party lines," said Ken Helgeson, president of the
tribal Island Mountain Protectors group. "It's not Republican or Democrat."

"I believe it's our Constitutional duty to clean up the Landusky mine
area," added Rep. Carol Lambert, R-Broadus. "The longer we wait, the more
it will cost."

Windy Boy carried a similar proposal in the 2003 Legislature that would
raise water clean-up money by selling state bonds. That measure was tabled
because of its cost and the fact that the federal government has been slow
in doling out companion funding.