Heap-leach mining—round two

April 03, 2003

Conservation lobbyists always have an extensive wish list of bills they want killed. This session the top spot on most wish lists was occupied by Sen. Debbie Shea’s (D-Butte) bill that asked voters to reconsider their 1998 ban on the cyanide heap-leach mining of gold and silver. Two weeks ago, lobbyists got their wish and Shea dropped SB 436 amidst claims that she didn’t have the votes to float the bill. Now lobbyists are remembering the old adage “be careful what you wish for.”

At the press conference where Shea announced she was withdrawing the bill, she explained that the campaign to overturn the ban isn’t over. The mining companies—including Colorado’s Canyon Resources—who first brought the bill to Shea, plan on using the initiative process to take the issue back to the voters.

Conservation groups have claimed all along that this is the appropriate way to address the issue.

“We said quite vocally at the hearing on the bill that if they really thought this was a good idea, they should do what the proponents did,” says Clark Fork Coalition conservation director and staff attorney Matt Clifford, “which was go out and convince the voters that cyanide heap-leach mining was a good thing. So now if they want to do that, I say more power to them.”

Since the onset of the 2003 session, many have said that changes to initiative law will make the process harder (see “Second guessing,” by Jed Gottlieb, March 20, 2003). Clifford and other representatives from conservation groups have attributed the changes to pressure from industry lobbyists whose clients frequently lose money when the public—not the Legislature—enacts laws strengthening environmental standards and industry oversight.

While many expect fewer initiatives in the future, they also see more money being funneled into the few remaining initiative campaigns. Supporters of Shea’s bill have said that voters never got to hear the mining companies’ side of the story during the initiative campaign that banned the process in 1998, due to a ban on corporate contributions to initiative campaigns. The ban on corporate contributions was later ruled unconstitutional, freeing up wealthy industries to spend millions on future initiative campaigns.

“They could have unlimited spending,” says Clifford. “The mining industries can raise a lot more money than public interest groups. But I think it’s still a tough sell, trying to convince the voters that cyanide heap-leach mining is a good thing given [the mining industry’s] record in Montana.”

Clifford has faith in the voters, but has seen large amounts of money change the momentum of initiative campaigns—one example being the buy-back-the-dams campaign, which made headway until PPL and Avista contributions allowed the anti-buy-back-the-dams campaign to outspend opponents more than fifty times over.

Shea says she’s not going to be involved in the initiative campaign, but that a coalition including industry and labor groups and the Montana Chamber of Commerce could line up behind the drive. Conservation groups expect the drive to begin with a bang as soon as the 2003 session is wrapped up later this month.

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