By SUSAN GALLAGHER
Associated Press Writer
HELENA - Tribes of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation ushered their leading environmental issue past another legislative step Wednesday as a Senate panel approved funding long-term treatment of water polluted by gold mining.
The Senate Finance and Claims Committee unanimously endorsed legislation that would put money into a trust fund for treatment of water at the sites of the defunct Zortman and Landusky mines, along the reservation's southern border. The bill has passed the House and now requires a vote by the full Senate.
At a hearing, the committee heard no opposition to the bill sponsored by Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Rocky Boy. Some of the measure's supporters from Fort Belknap said many people there are so doubtful about water safety that they buy bottled drinking water they can scarcely afford.
''I believe there needs to be an 'Extreme Makeover' on our mountains out there,'' said Tracy ''Ching'' King of the Fort Belknap Tribal Council, referring to the name of a television show in which people are given a new look.
Tribal elder Catherine Halver said the Fort Belknap tribes opposed Pegasus Gold Inc.'s development of the mines, which operated in the 1980s and '90s, closing in 1998 when Pegasus filed for bankruptcy. Now the tribes are stuck with the mines' legacy of pollution, said Halver, who lives near Lodge Pole. The money sought in the bill is necessary to help provide the tribes the clean water to which they are entitled, she told the committee.
The bill would route nearly $1.5 million a year to the trust fund, for perpetual water treatment. Present funding for water treatment will run out in 2018.
''It's the one area of (Zortman-Landusky) reclamation that is substantially underfunded,'' said Tom Livers, deputy director of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
Livers said about $34 million must be available by 2018, there is a $19.3 million shortfall in reaching that goal and the legislation will resolve the shortfall. A bond Pegasus had posted was too small to finance long-term treatment of water, leaving the state with substantial costs for dealing with acid-mine drainage that could continue for generations.
Speakers at the hearing Wednesday emphasized the need for action now, so money placed in the trust can start earning interest. Delaying action will only increase the cost to the state, the supporters said, noting legislative action now will be more costly that it would have been two years ago, when a similar proposal from Windy Boy failed.
Money for the trust deposits would come from a state special revenue account.
The bill is House Bill 379