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Montana Editorial Roundup

July 31, 2019

Daily Inter Lake, July 28, on water pollution from mining operations in Canada:

Paul Samycia, owner of Elk River Guiding Company in British Columbia, and his guides and clients have caught dozens of deformed westslope cutthroat trout in the river reaches below four open-pit coal mines operated by Teck Resources.

Teck Resources contends the incidence of deformities in the cutthroat trout in the Elk River does not exceed the rates of anomalies in fish in streams not impacted by coal mine pollution.

In this case, the pollutant at issue is selenium, a naturally occurring element that can be toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms at higher concentrations.

Erin Sexton, a senior scientist at the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station, said the levels of selenium in the Elk River are remarkably high.

Teck Resources admits the selenium is a problem but claims its current and future water treatment facilities will improve water quality. Skeptics wonder how long these treatment facilities will operate once the mines play out.

What does this have to do with Montana?

The Elk River is a tributary to the Kootenai River and Lake Koocanusa. Sexton said Lake Koocanusa is, in effect, a settling pond for the selenium washing downstream from the open-pit mines, which extract metallurgical coal used in steelmaking.

Officials in British Columbia, the U.S., and the states of Montana, Idaho, Washington and Alaska have known for years about the selenium pollution.

In recent months, efforts have intensified to get British Columbia to do more and to encourage Congress to fund water quality studies for Montana, Alaska, Washington and Idaho.

A June letter to British Columbia Premier John Horgan from U.S. Sens. Jon Tester, D-Montana, and Steve Daines, R-Montana, along with senators from other impacted states, reported that the senators “remain concerned about the lack of oversight of Canadian mining projects near multiple transboundary watersheds that originate in B.C. and flow into our four states.”

In second quarter results posted July 24, Teck Resources reported gross profit of $1.1 billion for the period ended June 30. The company said the British Columbia government had “endorsed saturated rock fills to treat water at our steelmaking coal operations.”

Teck Resources says it is spending millions of dollars to address the selenium pollution. But is it doing enough?

Few people think so.

It’s past time for the government in British Columbia to hold Teck Resources accountable. The company should not be allowed any additional expansion of mining in the Elk River Valley until it can prove it is making significant progress in treating the water leaching out of its current mines’ waste rock piles. The company should demonstrate in tangible ways its commitment to water treatment in the long term.

Daines, Tester and Gov. Steve Bullock should protect the aquatic resources in Northwest Montana and the people who share that territory. It’s time to turn up the heat.

Sexton said the concerns are real.

“From what I have seen of the data on water quality and fish in the Elk River and Lake Koocanusa, we definitely have reason to be worried here in Montana about the immediate and long-term impacts from Teck Coal’s Elk Valley mines in B.C. and who will be held accountable,” she said.

Editorial: http://bit.ly/2LYrgj5


Independent Record, July 28, on downtown Helena parking:

Helena’s new downtown parking plan is already starting to hurt some local businesses, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

In 2014, the Business Improvement District asked the city to reconsider its downtown parking strategy to prevent employees from taking up valuable parking spaces that could be used by customers. In 2016, the city decided to implement the electronic kiosks in prime downtown parking zones, and replace the old coin-operated parking meters a little further away with new electronic meters.

Both allow drivers to pay with a credit card, and the option to pay via smartphone is expected soon, which is great. Not only is the new equipment much more convenient for those who never carry change but always have a credit card or smartphone handy, but it’s sure to make parking enforcement much easier and streamlined for city staff.

The problem with the new equipment is the cost to use it, particularly the kiosks outside many of Helena’s small businesses.

In the past, free curbside parking was available right outside many downtown Helena stores for the first hour or two, depending on the area. Under the new system, customers will have to use one of the first-hour-free parking lots farther away or pony up for the same curbside parking spots regardless of how much time they spend there.

While the meters cost 50 cents an hour, the kiosks cost $1 an hour for the first two hours, $1.50 for the third hour, and $2 for the fourth and every subsequent hour.

For the occasional downtown shopper, that may not sound like much. But for those who like to start their day with a $1.75 cup of coffee from the General Mercantile or a $4 omelet from No Sweat Café, the extra dollar per day is enough of an annoyance to send them elsewhere for their daily routine.

This hurts the local businesses that make a living through many small transactions. As some business owners have expressed, however, there may an easy solution: Don’t charge for the first hour of parking.

That would help promote vehicle turnover without penalizing customers for supporting downtown businesses. And the city would continue to earn parking fund revenue from those who need a little more time.

In the past, the city has had problems with people who abused free one-hour parking by rolling their vehicles down a few spots every hour. But the kiosks require users to enter their license plate numbers, which should make it easier to keep track of any vehicles that are no longer supposed to be there.

Helena’s local business owners have enough to worry about as it is, and we hope city leaders will find a way to remove this unnecessary parking barrier between them and their customers.

Editorial: http://bit.ly/2LRr70q


Billings Gazette, July 25, on university regents considering charging for records requests:

Montana University Board of Regents: Please listen to your fellow regent, Martha Sheehy.

Don’t listen to her because she’s represented The Billings Gazette or other newspapers, necessarily. Listen to her because part of her impressive legal career comes from successful open meetings and public records fights. In other words, she has been a warrior on the front line of the battle to ensure that Montana’s unique state constitution continues to ensure the public’s right to know what its government is doing.

At issue is a new draft policy that would mostly mandate the university system to charge fees for public information and documents request.

We’ll state this plainly for the record: If the university decides to implement this system, we can nearly guarantee a legal challenge.

We’re not just saying this to be feisty or confrontational. We’re doing it because we believe the university would be adopting a policy that flies in the face of the state’s constitution, and it would be setting itself above the law.

It’s hard not to think that such a policy coincides with the university’s attempt to thwart public scrutiny of the Jordan Johnson case in which a star quarterback for the University of Montana was nearly expelled except for university system boss Clayton Christian stepping in to stop the expulsion.

The public still doesn’t know why Christian stepped in; all it knows is how it looks — like a star quarterback was saved because of his position on the football team.

This new policy, if it’s adopted, would put another obstacle and barrier for the public, and hinder its ability to see what’s really going on at any campus.

We have several problems with this draft policy.

First, it simply looks bad. At its most simple, this is a regulation aimed at making it more difficult to get public information. University officials may carp about the limited resources and the burden of answering an inquisitive public, but ultimately this policy appears to simply make it harder for the public and easier for the bureaucracy of higher education.

Secondly, the Montana Constitution guarantees that public has a right to know to what its officials and institutions are doing. By charging a fee, using the language that campuses “should” charge for information requests, this rule could be unconstitutional. The state’s constitution does not say that the public has a right to know only if it can afford it. A person’s ability to pay should never stop them from asking questions, and, more importantly, getting answers.

Spurring lawsuits

While this policy is clearly intended to have a chilling effect — that is, slow the number of information requests — it could slow the number of inquiries and yet increase the number of lawsuits.

If the university system adopts a policy of charging just to consider fulfilling an information request, we believe that many organizations, like The Billings Gazette, will be forced to sue the university for answers. This could mean an increase in legal fees because university policy does not have the same weight as state law, and could wind up costing the state more.

This policy could also drag out many requests. Let’s give an example: If media organization or other entities who seek information are turned away because of cost, or this policy is challenged, we can foresee a scenario where the public fight for information garners plenty of attention, possibly attracting plenty of bad press for what could be a very small request.

It’s also curious that the university system would adopt a policy like this. It seems like publicly employed officials, all of whom are paid through public money, are somehow burdened by pesky members of public who ask questions. We’d point out that part of being a public higher education institution is being accountable to the public. Public officials’ job is to deal with the (drum roll, please) public.

This makes that harder and so it should be rejected.

Something to hide?

Finally, if the regents adopt this, it only continues the notion that the university system has something to hide. It’s absolutely tone-deaf and more than a little suspicious that the regents considered this on the heels of the Montana Supreme Court decision which kept the reasons for overturning Johnson’s case secret. This new policy would appear to be more of the same.

Here’s the real irony: It seems like people who work in higher education, who are trying to encourage students to think critically, are crafting a policy that would make it harder to ask questions and get answers.

That’s not a policy that promotes education. It’s a policy that encourages ignorance.

Editorial: http://bit.ly/2LSBvFg

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