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Windy Boy pulls plug on water treatment bill for troubled mine complex

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HELENA, Mont. - Faced with amendments he couldn't live with, a tribal lawmaker has withdrawn a bill to fund long-term water treatment at the troubled Zortman-Landusky mine complex in northeastern Montana.

Zortman Mining Inc., a subsidiary of Pegasus Gold Corp., for decades operated the two massive open-pit gold mines in the Little Rocky Mountains. But the parent company declared bankruptcy in the late 1990s, forcing the state and federal governments to cover reclamation costs that go far beyond the company's inadequate $29 million bond.

Tribal leaders say continued contamination from the mines, which sit just south of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, threatens water quality in the area for Indians and non-Indians alike. Water from the site eventually seeps into groundwater and area streams flow into the nearby Missouri and Milk rivers.

According to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and the federal Bureau of Land Management, about $12.4 million is immediately needed for continued water treatment at Zortman-Landusky. State Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, responded with House Bill 367, which allocates a portion of federal mineral lease and royalty income to a state reclamation debt-service fund and allows the sale of additional bonds for financing water-purification operations at the closed mines.

Windy Boy maintains that H.B. 367 is needed because the state should take at least some responsibility for permitting the mines, not providing proper oversight, and not ensuring that the company wouldn't skip town and leave its pollution behind.

U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., says he's seeking $33.5 million in congressional funding for Zortman-Landusky reclamation, but no appropriations have yet been approved. Tribal leaders, who have filed numerous lawsuits over the mines, also contend state and federal estimates for fully cleaning up the sites are far too conservative.

H.B. 367 was designed to increase state bonding authority from $8 million to $20 million through the Resource Indemnity Trust and to raise funds so the state can pay for water treatment when private mining leases at the site expire in 2017. With interest, the $12 million raised in the bill would grow to at least $40 million over the next 14 years, Windy Boy says. To get the ball rolling, state government needed to kick in about $2 million for debt service over the next two years.

"I would like to make it clear that it was not the Fort Belknap tribal government nor their people who granted the permits to operate these mines, yet they have to live amidst the aftermath of large-scale open-pit mining," Windy Boy told the House Natural Resources Committee at a Feb. 3 hearing.

The Montana Mining Association and the Montana Association of Oil, Gas and Coal Counties came out against H. B. 367 at the hearing. Windy Boy later amended the bill to ensure that local governments continued to receive a cut of the federal royalties funding. That move prompted the counties to drop their opposition. The mining group, however, argued that the federal money Burns is seeking should be enough to complete reclamation. Tribal leaders disagree.

Because Windy Boy's bill would create a state debt, it needed approval from two-thirds of the members of each legislative body to pass. The measure received a preliminary 65-35 vote in the Montana House, but Republican leaders abruptly referred it to the House Appropriations Committee for further consideration.

Back in committee, lawmakers essentially gutted the bill by mandating that no state money could be allocated until the federal government agreed to kick in at least $10 million for water treatment over the next two years. Windy Boy on March 27 told his colleagues on the House floor that the likelihood of that happening was extremely low.

"Who are we kidding here?," he said. "We're not going to get $10 million when President Bush is asking for $75 billion to blow up Iraq. We'd be lucky if we got $1 million." Windy Boy then urged the House to just kill the bill, which members did by a 84-16 margin.

After the vote, Windy Boy said he plans to raise the issue again if he wins re-election to his legislative seat. In the 2005 session, however, the costs to the state are expected to be even more.