Rolling Back the Ban?



Rolling Back the Ban?

Corporate threats jeopardize Montana's cyanide-mining ban

The pressure was on this week for the dozens of people who traveled to Helena to testify before the Senate Natural Resources Committee about three bills that would either repeal or amend Initiative 137, a ban on cyanide heap-leach mining that voters approved last November.

Both those for and against the new bills sensed the urgency of making the trek through newly dropped snow to plead their case, asking the 11 committee members to either send the bills to the Senate floor or kill them immediately.

However, the pressure wasn't only on those who testified. A seemingly strategic announcement by the Canyon Resources Corp-oration may have added yet another twist to the already overwhelming issue. On Monday, just two days before the Natural Resources Committee hearing, Canyon Resources distributed a press release announcing that it was considering a lawsuit against the state of Montana. The timing of the announcement has some people questioning the company's motives.

Community organizer Graden M. Oehlerich traveled to Helena with about 40 others to encourage the Legislature not to repeal Initiative 137. “The voters have spoken clearly,” she said, “Montanans want clean water.”
Photo by Chad Harder

"The timing of their announcement casts a very long shadow of suspicion on their motives, which can only be political and not legal," says Jim Jensen, executive director of the Montana Environmental Information Center. "The Legislature does not appreciate attempts to blackmail it, especially with such a desperate and hollow move."

The "takings" lawsuit could claim as much as $600 million, for the value of the gold and silver deposits in two mines that have been "taken" from the company because of the passage of I-137. Almost $70 million has been invested in the acquisition, exploration and development of these two mines.

Canyon Resources' CEO Richard DeVoto says that the mineral rights that his corporation have been leasing from the state for the past ten years are no good without the ability to use the cyanide heap-leach process. "Sure, there are some high-grade deposits that can be underground mined," DeVoto says. "But this area can only be mined by open-pit or cyanide."

The lawsuit will be filed after Canyon Resources does some homework, DeVoto says, and if the upholding of I-137 is apparent. But, Bryony Schwan, director of Women's Voices for the Earth, says, "Corporations don't see takings the same way. If they can't make a huge wad of money, they see it as a taking. But when they pollute our river, isn't that a taking also? Didn't they just take away our clean water?"

Canyon Resources is pulling for at least one of the three proposed bills this session that could eliminate I-137 and keep their mine project viable. Senator Chuck Swysgood, a Republican from Dillon, has sponsored two bills to repeal I-137 until Election Day, 2000, to allow for more discussion of the initiative. Those who opposed I-137 argue that the public did not get all of the information about the initiative because of a ban that prevented corporations from campaigning for ballot measures. The ban was lifted 12 days before the election.

The third bill, introduced by Debbie Shea, a Democrat from Butte, proposes letting individual counties decide if they want to keep the initiative. If not, county commissioners could pass a resolution that overturns I-137, or the residents of the county could vote to overturn the initiative.

Some claim that this bill undermines the original November vote, which passed by a 52-to-48-percent margin.

"The people have made it clear," Bryony Schwan says. "But then, two people can overturn the will of the people."

Not only can the votes of two commissioners overturn this state-wide measure if Shea's bill passes-those same two commissioners may not even live in the area most impacted by the cyanide heap-leach mine. Canyon's Seven-Up Pete mine is in Lewis and Clark County, which stretches almost completely east of the Continental Divide-the only part of the county that sits west of the Divide is where the mine is proposed.

"These commissioners represent people who don't live on the same side of the Continental Divide, let alone in the same watershed," Jensen says. "Two county commissioners in Lewis and Clark County can expose Powell and Missoula counties to all of the risks and negative impacts of a gargantuan mine on the Blackfoot."

Schwan adds, "If Lewis and Clark County decides they want cyanide heap-leach mining, they would get all of the tax benefits and Missoula County would get all of the pollution."

However, the mining industry disputes the entire pollution argument as irrelevant. "The cyanide heap-leach technique is a very, very safe treatment," says DeVoto. "There is not a single mine on earth that doesn't use this process."

"Phooey," say most enviros and public health advocates. The Montana Environmental Information Center cited a recent case involving the Golden Sunlight mine near Whitehall, which paid $66,000 for a cyanide leak in 1988 that contaminated groundwater at levels that exceeded state human health standards.

The coming weeks should bring a decision from the Legislature regarding the I-137 bills, and people on both sides have their fingers crossed.


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