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by Jim Jensen

Sunshine Month Should be Celebrated!

March has been declared to be Sunshine month, to recognize the importance of the public’s right to know what its government is doing. The following is an example of how important this right is to MEIC’s ability to protect Montana’s natural environment.

In 1992 I received an anonymous telephone tip at 5:05 PM on a Friday. The caller told me where to look in the Department of State Lands (DSL, now DEQ) files to discover that the Montanore mine project (which was then boring a large exploration tunnel beneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness) had been violating State water quality standards for years. And that it was continuing to do so without any enforcement from the State’s mining regulators. The pollutants being discharged were nitrogen and phosphorus – so-called nutrients, residual products of explosives. If you like toxic and nuisance algae and scum in your rivers, lakes, and streams, you’ll love these pollutants.

My source said it was impossible for him to go public because of a pernicious provision in the Montana’s Metal Mines Reclamation Act that made it criminal for anyone in the agency to make public any information relating to mining exploration except the owner’s name and location of the project.

The following Monday at 8:00 AM I hand-delivered a letter to the Hard Rock Mining Bureau at DSL requesting to examine files relating to several exploration projects. I was denied access as expected. So MEIC, along with the then-fledgling Freedom of Information Hotline, sued the agency under the Montana Constitution’s right-to-know guarantee. We won, with the court ruling that the confidentiality provision in the law was patently unconstitutional on its face. The State (i.e., Montana taxpayers), after defending the indefensible instead of acknowledging the obvious, had to pay our attorney’s fees.

When it became clear to DHES that it could no longer hide this ongoing pollution, the agency notified Montanore’s owners that they must begin meeting water quality standards for nutrients. The project’s owner at that time, the huge Canadian mining firm Noranda (owned by the billionaire Bronfman family – think Seagram’s liquor) promptly halted all exploration work. Even with this corrupt history, DHES still approved Montanore’s permit to mine. The company never moved forward and later surrendered its permits to the U.S. Forest Service and DEQ. It had absolutely no willingness to pay the cost of eliminating its nutrient discharges to Libby Creek.

Corruption Today

Now comes HB 625 sponsored by freshman Rep. Bill Mercer (R-Billings). The bill would eliminate all numeric nutrient water quality standards in Montana.

Mercer’s name may be familiar to you in that he was the infamous (see Billings Gazette, Jan. 30, 2008) U.S. Attorney for Montana under the George W. Bush Administration. Well, it turns out that Rep. Mercer now works for Holland and Hart, a large Denver-based industry law firm.

And, guess what. Mercer now represents the Montanore mine project, recently purchased by Hecla Mining, a state-designated “bad actor” under the Metal Mines Reclamation Act. And guess who would be the biggest beneficiary of HB 625 – the Montanore mine. Rep. Mercer seems to have forgotten to disclose this little fact to the House Natural Resources Committee and the Montana House of Representatives when speaking for and voting for his bill. Montana’s only requirement regarding conflicts of interest is for disclosure, a pathetically weak provision. The bill passed the House on a 60 to 40 vote and now awaits action in the Senate.

In my 40 years of lobbying at the Montana Legislature this is the most flagrant conflict of interest I have seen. And that’s saying something.

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