Fouling our nest

What part of "banned" doesn't mining understand?



The announcement that the Montana Mining Association will launch an initiative to overturn the ban on new cyanide heap-leach gold mines should come as no surprise. After all, the Legislature has rewritten or removed just about every other environmental protection law in the last decade in its futile attempt to “jump start” Montana’s economy. This generation of shortsighted Montana policymakers has abandoned the long-term stewardship of our state’s assets in the reckless pursuit of short-term economic gain and is shamefully fouling the nest for those who follow.

To put things in historical perspective, Montana has been getting the short end of the stick ever since the non-Indians moved in. After eons of life in the same areas, living by necessity in harmony with the natural environment, the continent’s First People met the newcomers. First came the fur-trappers, who took all the beavers while their Black Robes substituted the tale of Jesus for the Indians’ long-standing cosmogony and cosmology.

Then came the so-called “settlers,” a stunningly ethnocentric title for a wave of immigrants who stole Indian lands at the point of the cavalry’s long-guns, treaties be damned. The “settlers” of this already-settled land brought their voracious appetites with them, and soon the miners tore the earth and poisoned the streams in their search for gold. Entire forests were leveled while the so-called “hunters” slaughtered the millions of Great Plains bison nearly to extinction, and then, in a last indignity, turned the native prairie upside down in their vain attempts at agriculture. The rivers were dammed, putting an abrupt end to millennia of salmon runs, the smelter stacks went up, and even the very air was filled with the miasmic poisons of industry.

For more than a century, the newcomers seemed to have only one creed: Take, take, and take some more…and let the future fend for itself.

Eventually, as we all know, the endless taking from the land resulted in horrific environmental disruptions that endure to this day. Butte’s Berkeley Pit continues to fill with billions of gallons of poisonous water climbing ever-so-slowly toward the water table. The Clark Fork River, which once teemed with ocean-run salmon, remains a virtual dead zone from a century’s use as an industrial sewer. Thousands of miles of Montana’s streams remain “impaired”—both from current effluent discharges, and the ugly scars that remain behind after the gold dredges turned the streambeds inside out.

But still, it wasn’t enough. There remained more to take—whether it was really needed or not. Giant open-pit mines for both coal and gold suddenly sprang into being where mountainsides or prairies had once been. The coal was burned on-site, spewing mercury, sulfur dioxide and a host of other pollutants into Montana’s Big Sky. Just to keep the record straight, it was Democrat Gov. Ted Schwinden who pushed through his mid-’80s move to slash our Coal Severance Tax in the foolish belief that he could ensure more coal-mining jobs.

As it turned out, none of those promised jobs climbed through Schwinden’s “Window of Opportunity”—but the coal companies profited greatly from the millions in tax savings they pocketed.

The gold miners, having exhausted the loose nuggets and fat veins of shining metal, turned to grinding up millions of tons of rock to extract miniscule amounts of gold. Piling the crushed rock in giant heaps, they sprayed them with a deadly cyanide solution to capture the tiny golden flecks. The process, we were assured, was totally safe.

As we now know, that too was a lie.

In the mid-’90s, faced with legislatures that would sacrifice anything for their god Mammon, citizens rose up to try and pass a Clean Water Initiative to protect the state’s ultimate lifeblood. The mining industry, in cahoots with real estate, development and assorted ag interests, defeated the initiative. Anyone who was around then probably remembers the classic campaign ad where an industry lobbyist takes a big drink of water from the discharge below the Beal Mountain Mine near Butte. Unlike “old” mining, we were told, “new” mining was so safe you could drink the effluent.

The Beal Mountain Mine is now a Superfund site, having exhausted the reclamation bond of the bankrupt Pegasus Gold Corp. while the long-term pollution from the leaking cyanide pads goes on and on and on. Unfortunately, Beal Mountain is not the only cyanide heap-leach gold mine that continues to poison both ground and surface water. The defunct C.R. Kendall mine and the notorious Zortmann-Landusky mine likewise continue to pollute.

In 1998, citizens said “enough” and voted to pass I-137, the initiative that banned any new cyanide heap-leach gold mines in Montana. For five years, the mining industry tried to get their legislative toadies, like Butte’s Sen. Debbie Shea, to overturn the citizen’s initiative, but were unable to do so. Then, the economy tanked, the value of the dollar fell, the price of gold soared to above $400 an ounce, and it became worth it for the gold-mining industry to take another shot at trading Montana’s perpetual pollution for profit.

As we have come to expect through our long history with the mining industry, the truth once again seems to be the first thing to go. Now, the industry reps tell us, their new initiative will replace the cyanide ban with a series of so-called “safeguards” that will finally, once and for all, make cyanide mining a clean industry.

What they didn’t say is that all their new “safeguards” have already been used at the mines that are polluting Montana today. There is nothing new here at all, except the campaign ads. We have heard it all before, and we’re going to hear it all again.

Sooner or later, however, we Montanans must face our responsibilities as trustees—to ensure we turn the state over to future generations in better condition than we got it. And that means we cannot and must not allow the mining industry to continue to foul our nest.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent. Contact Ochenski at


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