Board Chair Mary LaPorte writes about El Salvador’s historic ban on metal mining, and Montana’s own struggle with the toxic legacy of mining. Her letter was published in the Missoulian April 20, 2017.
Events outside our country offer hope and inspiration as our own rights to clean water are threatened.
On March 29, El Salvador’s multi-party National Legislature stood up to enormous pressure from global mining corporations and passed the world’s first comprehensive ban on metals mining, a toxic industry that threatens El Salvador’s water supply.
Mining in El Salvador has grown recently. Farmers learned about the environmental havoc unleashed by toxic cyanide used in processing. In 2005 a massive campaign began to raise awareness of threats mining posed to rivers. El Salvador is the most densely populated country in Latin America. An estimated 90 percent of its surface waters is polluted by toxic chemicals, heavy metals and waste.
El Salvador’s law was adopted after a long dispute between the government and a Canadian company invested in gold mining. El Salvador prevailed last year after a World Bank arbitration panel ruled in its favor; the company did not meet the legal requirements for mining permits. After that decision, support for a ban on mining became widespread among Salvadorans who concluded they had more to lose than gain. Indeed Salvadorans “chose water over gold.”
The law sets a powerful example for communities that oppose large mining projects and bolsters the case against mining in environmentally sensitive areas. “Globally there is a growing questioning of mining as an economic development engine,” said Keith Slack of Oxfam America. “I think it definitely strengthens the voice of communities.”
Here at home, President Trump signals that clean water is not a national priority, nor a concern of federal government. Proposed are drastic cuts to clean water funds, essentially reverting America’s water protection measures back to pre-1970 standards. A 31 percent decrease in the 2018 Environmental Protection Agency budget will put tremendous pressure on state and local governments, and will thrust clean water obligations back to states where they will languish as in the past.
Issues surrounding mining and water are important to Montana.
Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is charged with cleaning up abandoned mining sites. Its website lists 129 priority hard-rock mining sites with significant health and safety hazards – all lacking funding and cleanup plans. While tremendous needs remain for Montana’s large mining sites, these very old mines still pollute water and land, and pose physical and environmental threats. Heavy metals found in tailings include arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury and zinc. According to a DEQ report, mine discharges and streams near the sites are common. DEQ has a huge lack of funding now. How can it take on the work of federal agencies?
Meanwhile, some Montana legislators seek to overwhelm the DEQ and weaken protections for water and the environment for current and future mine permitting. Recently Sen. Chas Vincent of Libby proposed that the DEQ assume responsibility of the dredge-and-fill permitting program currently conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, despite costs of $1.6 million. Thankfully this bill has been tabled for now, but is likely to reappear in future sessions. Sen. Duane Ankney of Colstrip has authored Senate Bill 337, which would eliminate the Montana Board of Environmental Review, a body of volunteer technical experts that independently determines whether DEQ follows the law. This bill has passed the Montana Senate and is headed for a full vote in the House.
El Salvador’s accomplishment made me think about the toll mining can take on our water and health, and the vital role of environmental regulations and enforcement. As Andres McKinley, a mining and water specialist at Central American University in San Salvador, stated, “Mining is an industry whose primary and first victim is water.”