By SUSAN GALLAGHER/Associated Press Writer
HELENA - Montana is overdue in figuring out a way to pay for long-term treatment of water contaminated by the defunct Zortman-Landusky mines, the Fort Belknap tribes told a legislative committee Monday.
Their remedy is a bill that would direct nearly $1.5 million a year to a trust fund and use the interest to pay for water treatment well into the future - the tribes say ''in perpetuity.'' Water treatment now under way is funded only until 2018.
No one opposed the measure, sponsored by Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Rocky Boy, and presented to the House Natural Resources Committee. Most of the proponents represented the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, which had an active gold-mining complex on its southern border from 1979 until the late 1990s. Operator Pegasus Gold Corp., which filed for bankruptcy in 1998, posted a bond inadequate for long-term water treatment.
The tribes have long contended the mining, using the cyanide heap-leach process now banned in Montana, took place without an adequate environmental review. Now, they say, acid-mine drainage has left them with a water mess that threatens to linger for generations.
''We've come because of something that's very important to us: our water,'' said Julia Doney, vice president of the Fort Belknap Indian Community.
''The state brushed off our worries and criticism'' as the mines were developed, Doney said. ''Now, 25 years later, our worst fears have come to pass.''
Under the bill, the trust fund would be established by July 1, 2006, and earnings on the money would be retained until 2018. Beginning in that year, the interest would be available for water-treatment expenses. Money for the trust would come from payments the federal government gives Montana for mineral production on federal lands in the state - payments that ordinarily enter the general fund, state government's main operating account.
''The most recent numbers indicate that in 2018 we need a trust fund of $34 million,'' Warren McCullough, chief of the state Environmental Management Bureau, said in an interview last week. ''That's the amount of money we need in place to generate enough interest to provide for long-term water treatment.''
McCullough said that ''we can assume there will be a long-term water treatment problem. We do not have any evidence to suggest at this point that we will not need that money.''
A decree signed by Pegasus, the tribes, the state and others in the mid-1990s required Pegasus to construct the water-treatment systems now in use, and provide for their long-term operation. Then the bankruptcy occurred.
Tribal officials say the treatment does not address all concerns about water quality.
The bill is House Bill 379.