Mining bill earns support from industry and conservation groups

March 24, 2015

A new bill in Montana that would add regulations for storing mine tailings accomplished something few other measures have, it gained support from mining industry groups as well as conservation groups.

Senate Bill 409 was written in response to the tailings spill at the Mount Polley Mine in British Columbia. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Chas Vincent (R-Libby) proposed the bill to the Montana Senate Natural Resources Committee.

SB409 would provide that oversight for tailings facilities, including design specifications against earthquakes and floods, risk analysis, emergency response plans, qualifications for a mine’s engineer of record and requiring annual inspections. The bill further creates an independent panel to approve designs and operations with review every five years, The Montana Standard reported.

Montana currently has eight active mines that would be affected by the bill, with three others in the permitting stage, according to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), which supports the bill.

“It’s a responsible and reasonable question for the public to ask,” said Tammy Johnson, executive director for the Montana Mining Association, of the safeguards at Montana mines.

While Johnson believed Montana’s tailings impoundments were safe, the association’s members agreed to proactively address those concerns in writing SB409 with input from DEQ, she said.

Much of the bill deals with technical requirements for planning documents, but it is DEQ’s enforcement authorities and flood regulations that ensure “the most rigorous standard we could find,” said Montana Mining Association President Mark Thompson.

Representatives from the Montana Chamber of Commerce, the Golden Sunlight Mine near Whitehall and the Billings-based Stillwater Mining Co. threw their support behind the bill.

“We support a proactive approach, and this proposed legislation also assists the modern mining industry’s desire to stay sustainable in the future,” said John Beaudry of Stillwater.

Montana Trout Unlimited and the Montana Environmental Information Center, which are often opponents of the mining industry, offered qualified endorsements of SB409. Both said they would support the bill if Vincent would be open to amendments.

Besides needed language emphasizing public and environmental health, MEIC took issue with exemptions for tailings facilities less than 50 acre-feet in size. That would allow up to 16 million gallons of water in a “pretty large facility,” Johnson said.

MEIC also believed the SB409 requirement of 10 years of experience for a qualified engineer of record should be upped to 20 years, he said. An engineer of record is responsible for inspection and safety compliance of tailings impoundments and other mine operations.


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