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I-137 backers may not seek amendment

HELENA (AP) - The group that wrote Montana's law banning cyanide heap-leach mining in 1998 may or may not actually campaign to write the ban into the state constitution this year, its executive director says.

Jim Jensen, executive director of the Montana Environmental Information Center, submitted paperwork for a proposed constitutional amendment on Friday, but he said Saturday that doesn't commit anyone to trying to get it on the November ballot. He said he's not sure ban supporters will even try.

But he said they want to keep all options open for fighting mining interests that are backing an initiative to repeal the ban.

''We're certainly serious about reviewing citizen support in the next two or three weeks,'' he said. ''We'll do some research to see if our best option to prevent Canyon Resources (Corp.) from overturning I-137 is to run a separate initiative or to simply oppose theirs.''

Canyon Resources, of Golden, Colo., is one of the primary backers of the proposed ballot measure to repeal Montana's ban on use of cyanide heap-leaching. Voters enacted the ban in 1998 by approving Initiative 137.

I-137 essentially blocked Canyon Resources' plan to develop a huge open-pit gold mine just east of Lincoln. The company is suing the state for damages, claiming I-137 illegally took its property by halting development of the McDonald mine.

The company had spent millions of dollars on studies and environmental reviews, but no actual mining or construction had begun when development stopped in 1999.

Canyon and other mining interests hired Whitehall consultant Tammy Johnson, who filed the proposed repeal initiative earlier this month. Johnson said Saturday she wonders if Jensen and MEIC are trying to ''confuse the issue a little bit.''

The proposed repeal initiative is undergoing legal review by state officials. Once it's approved, backers will need 20,105 signatures of registered voters to get it on the November 2004 ballot. Those signatures also must include at least 5 percent of registered voters in at least 28 counties. Johnson said she expects it will be ready for signature-gathering by mid-April.

Jensen's initiative, since it would amend the constitution, would need twice as many signatures, 40,510.

Johnson has said the repeal initiative would allow cyanide heap-leach mining only under strict environmental restrictions placed in law.

Her opponents say those restrictions are no stiffer than the state can already require, and that they didn't prevent pollution problems at earlier cyanide heap-leach mines in Montana. They say cyanide heap-leach mining has left a legacy of destroyed landscapes and polluted waters.

Three major gold mines that used cyanide heap-leaching -- Beal Mountain near Anaconda, Kendall near Lewistown, and Zortman-Landusky south of Malta - are in various stages of cleanup, and have caused water problems at all sites.

Jensen's proposed constitutional amendment would exempt existing mines. The only large cyanide heap-leach mine operating in Montana is the Golden Sunlight gold mine near Whitehall.

Jensen acknowledged that it could be difficult to round up the 40,510 necessary signatures, but noted that supporters of the original ban gathered nearly 40,000 in 1998, when they needed only about 20,000.


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