Mining group asks Montana court to void ballot initiative

HELENA (AP) — The Montana Mining Association is asking the state Supreme Court to void a proposed ballot initiative that would prevent new mines from operating if they require the perpetual cleanup of polluted water after the mine closes.

The mining association’s petition filed Friday asks the court to declare the proposal legally insufficient, to void the petitions used to gather signatures and to block any other signature-gathering until it’s changed.

Signatures for proposed initiatives must be submitted to county election offices by June 22; so a ruling granting the association’s request would leave the measure’s sponsors very little time to collect the 25,468 voter signatures required to place it on November’s ballot.

Requests for comment were referred to Montana Trout Unlimited Executive Director David Brooks, who said Wednesday that initiative sponsors are ahead of their signature-gathering target and it would be “a travesty” for those signatures to be thrown out so close to the deadline.

“This is clearly something Montanans want to have in front of them in November,” Brooks said. “This lawsuit is maybe not a surprising attempt to do away with it before it is in front of voters.”

Dave Galt, who leads the mining industry-backed committee opposing the initiative, told the state Environmental Quality Council Wednesday that the measure is so vaguely worded that environmental activists would use it to sue to block any new mine from opening in Montana.

But the mining association’s lawsuit doesn’t address the merits of the proposal; it seeks to squash the initiative on a technical matter.

The initiative says it would become effective upon passage by voters in November. The association’s lawyers cite a state law that says any initiative in need of additional rulemaking by the state can’t become effective until the following October.

This initiative is subject to this law because it will need additional rulemaking to define the terms, such as “perpetual treatment” and “contamination,” the lawsuit claims.

The state Department of Justice reviewed the measure for legal sufficiency before it was approved for signature gathering. Department spokesman Eric Sell said Wednesday that the mining association raised the same issue about the effective date during that review.

“We don’t believe (the mining association’s) concern makes the initiative legally deficient,” Sell said. He said more details would be included in the state’s formal response to the petition to be filed by Monday.