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Not quite a done deal

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New World Mine deal swaps gold for coal

Haggling continues as deadline looms for president's approval

When President Bill Clinton announced just before election day last year that he was protecting Yellowstone National Park from a proposed gold mine more or less in perpetuity by blocking the development of the New World Mine, environmentalists cheered.

But this week, as a bill which would resolve the belabored New World agreement once and for all heads for the president's desk, many of the same conservation interests have asked Clinton to veto the legislation.

The problem with the Interior Appropriations bill, according to its critics, is that it allows for Montana's powerful extractive industry lobby to use Yellowstone's protection as a fulcrum for other projects. The bill's supporters -- which include a bipartisan coalition in Congress -- all point to the resolution of the mine agreement and the ensuing economic opportunity as a proverbial "win-win" situation.

The $13.8 billion Interior Appropriations measure passed the Senate last week 84-14, and the was approved a week earlier by a House vote of 233-171. All three members of Montana's congressional delegation signed a letter on October 28 which asked the president to ignore "heated rhetoric" and sign the bill.

In addition to providing $65 million in funding for the New World Mine deal, the bill increases money for the national park system by $78 million over last year, and provides another $12 million for maintenance on Montana's Beartooth Highway.

But of particular concern to environmentalists is a provision that would transfer at least $10 million worth of federal mineral rights to the state, likely to come in the form of coal reserves in Eastern Montana -- a trade-off of one environmental liability for another if ever there was one, they say.

If the state and feds can't come to an agreement on where the $10 million would come from by Jan. 1, 2001, the deal will be sealed with a transfer of $250 million in gold deposits at Otter Creek near Birney, Mont. -- this possibility has raised the stakes such that ranchers and Cheyenne Reservation politicos are both protesting the measure.

One letter, from the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (the organization responsible for the multi-million dollar lawsuit that forced the mining company to the table in the beginning) and signed by numerous conservation groups, argues that the bill "holds Yellowstone National Park hostage to pork barrel politics."

Targeting Montana Republicans Sen. Conrad Burns and Rep. Rick Hill specifically, the coalition's letter continues: "This provision not only fleeces the American taxpayer by requiring that property owned by us all be given away, it brings significant new controversy to a process that has been marked by cooperation."

The outcry over the proposed law, says Hill spokesperson Amy Sullivan, has the representative's staff scratching its collective head. Sullivan goes on to say that the bill does everything her boss set out to do: It keeps the economic benefits the mine would have brought in the state, and satisfies the concerns of Margaret Reeb, the landowner whose property adjoins the New World Mine.

While Sullivan says it's way too early in the process to talk about scuttling the deal with a veto over coal mining concerns, environmentalists and others are not so willing to accept the arrangement as is.

The mere risk of coal exploration along the Tongue River Railroad -- which runs through an environmentally sensitive valley -- has ranchers such as Jeanie Alderson, a board member of the Northern Plains Resource Council, up in arms.

"We're not the spoilers in this," Alderson says, "but I see this as setting a precedent for swaps when we were told by the president that wouldn't happen. We've asked for an outright veto, because the inclusion of coal is a violation of the principle of the original agreement."

Doug Honnold, of Boze-man's Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund (formerly the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund), acted as the lead attorney on the Clean Water lawsuit which initially dampened plans for the mine outside Yellowstone.

Honnold is cautious today when discussing the legislation, noting that the plaintiffs hold a trump card in that their signatures are needed on a consent agreement, legislation notwithstanding, if the mine deal is eventually going to be put to bed.

"The 1996 agreement we worked out," Honnold says, "was contingent on finding the funding to pay the mining company. We now have a vehicle that presents the funding for that, and the groups will have to decide how onerous they feel the deal is."

One possibility, Honnold says, is that Montana environmentalists will see the value of accepting "blood money" in exchange for finalizing the deal. Another, he notes, is that the pressure to veto the bill will at least result in a line-item veto of the mineral transfer provision.

Honnold, moreover, doesn't accept the congressional argument which maintains that the transfer is exempt from a line-item veto. The line-item itself hasn't been used enough, he points out, for anybody to conclusively say whether the relatively new presidential power could withstand a judicial challenge in this case.

According to the law, President Clinton has up to five days after he signs the bill to enact a line-item veto. He has until Saturday, Nov. 15, to either sign or reject the bill.

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