The costs of treating pollution

Nov 27, 2013

You pretty much can’t swing a dead cat these days without hitting some politician, Chamber of Commerce spokesperson or tea party activist lecturing about how government spending is chaining future generations to a bottomless maw of debt and impoverishment.

To them, it’s always about protecting the future, the kids, grandkids. Fine.

But its difficult to take these concerns seriously when the same folks are willingly indebting future generations over costly decisions affecting natural resource development – decisions in which the economic benefits accrue to a favored few for a short period today in exchange for passing off extravagant costs to future generations.

This is the case when politicians and their industry sponsors ignore the substantial transgenerational costs resulting from the human role in changing the climate. We release the greenhouse gasses today, get the benefits, then bequeath to future generations the costs, such as increased drought, rising sea levels, more frequent and destructive wildfires and reduced food production.

Montana suffers from other inarguable examples of future debt – in the form of real money, millions of dollars – being handed off to future generations. And those who complain loudest about government deficits are often complicit. State environmental regulators, prodded by conservative, deficit-hawk politicians and activists, continue to approve mining operations that create pollution in perpetuity. And because pollution has costs, it is being addressed by simply handing the problem to future Montanans. The examples are many and include contemporary mines.

The closed Zortman-Landusky mines near Malta, permitted in the late 1970s, produce up to 321 million gallons of polluted water a year. And it unless treated, it taints local ground and surface water. To prevent this, taxpayers are paying for collection and treatment of discharges. Because of local geology, the agency scientists who helped approve the mining say this treatment will have to occur for thousands of years at an ongoing cost of untold millions. The shuttered Kendall Mine near Lewistown, another modern operation, today produces millions of gallons of polluted discharge a year, threatening water sources of local ranchers. Though not projected to occur in perpetuity -- estimates indicate it could last 40 to 100 years. The pollution is problematic because the State has just a fraction of the money it needs to deal with the problem from the company that created it.

Butte’s closed Berkeley Pit, a modern mine, and its active sister the Continental Pit, are producing some 1.8 billion gallons of polluted water a year. And though it’s being collected and treated today, it is pollution that will endure for centuries. Who can guarantee that 100 or a thousand years from now that enough money will be available from long-defunct companies to prevent taxpayers from footing the bill? No one.

Similarly, the operating Golden Sunlight Mine near Whitehall produces an estimated 52 million gallons a year of acid and metals tainted discharge near the Jefferson River. Today the mine treats most of the discharge, and it has posted a bond to cover future costs. Yet no guarantee exists demonstrating the bond is adequate to cover costs in perpetuity. Defenders of perpetual pollution say leaving bonds will cover future costs. But no economist today can say with certainty how much treatment will cost centuries hence. Interestingly, some of the same defenders of this approach often argue mightily that state budget offices or Montana’s Board of investments can’t predict next year’s revenue. But they claim we can project the costs of treating pollution centuries from now.

A classic example of bonding proving completely inadequate is the closed Beal Mountain gold mine near Anaconda. Once hailed as state-of-the-art, it is now a source of ongoing metals and potentially cyanide pollution that could last for decades, and possibly forever. Taxpayers are paying millions today for emergency pollution control because Montana’s regulatory agencies couldn’t correctly estimate a bond. And of course, Montana also hosts many older mining areas where the public is paying to protect itself from sites that produced a benefit in the past, such as in the upper Blackfoot River and Tenmile Creek watersheds.

It is therefore not reassuring that state regulators – some of the same folks who evaluated and underestimated impacts and bonding at the Zortman, Beal, Golden Sunlight and Kendall mines – might recommend approval of a huge copper operation near the headwaters of the Smith River, a mine that will produce pollution in perpetuity.

Approving resource development that creates perpetual pollution is a huge mistake. It should be banned, and the effort to get that done, reasonably, should be led by those who claim the mantle of deficit hawk.

This is Bruce Farling of Montana Trout Unlimited. Contact us at