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New West Daily Roundup for Jan. 23, 2017

Today in New West news: Wyoming Senate president “kills” amendment for lands transfer, Berkeley Pit nearing critical capacity, and University of Denver delays “divest” decision.

Earlier this month, we reported an amendment to change the Wyoming Constitution regarding public lands. The amendment would have made it easier for the state to receive federal lands, a move decried by sportsmen, conservationists, and other Wyomingites who fear the move would lead to land sales and, in all likelihood, the end of public access. The amendment was announced a few weeks prior to a vote by the U.S. House of Representatives to disregard financial gains and losses when it comes to the transfer of public lands to states.

However, according to the Casper Star Tribune, Wyoming Senate President Eli Bebout has opted to kill the amendment entirely rather than send it to debate:

“I’ve given a lot of thought to the public lands initiative,” said Bebout, a Riverton Republican said. “And what I’m going to do is, I’m going to not assign that bill (to a committee.) I’m going to kill it. But there’s a lot of moving parts in that. I think the message that a lot of people believe out there… really isn’t what it’s about. I think we’ve lost that message.”

The senator made the announcement hours after President Donald Trump was inaugurated. The state will work with the administration to more collaboratively manage the land, Bebout said.

“Starting today, from day one, leadership of the Wyoming Legislature is committed to working with the Trump administration and our congressional delegation to develop a solution that will ensure public lands are managed for multiple use and available to benefit all Wyoming residents,” Bebout said.

Before a constitutional amendment lands on the ballot, it needs to pass the Wyoming Legislature with votes from two-thirds of the House and Senate. Bebout said he was unsure whether he had enough votes.

The public lands issue is contentious throughout the West.

On the one side are sportsmen, who fear states would sell the land when they were unable to afford management – especially if there were a large wildfire. Wyoming would obtain an estimated 25 million additional acres of public land if Congress agreed to a transfer. The state currently has just 3 million acres.

On the other side are critics of the federal government’s bureaucracy. They note that it can take over a decade to permit grazing, mining, drilling and wind projects. Wyoming’s cut of that development is about $1 billion a year, money that funds schools and state agencies.

This session, lawmakers must figure out how to close a $400 million shortfall in the state’s two-year budget. Lawmakers are also facing a deficit of over $1 billion in school funding in coming years that they will also attempt to tackle during the 2017 session, which continues through early March.

Adding the constitutional amendment to their responsibilities would amount to an additional burden, Bebout said.

“We’ve lost that,” he said. “So why go through the aggravation? Let’s look at in the interim. It’s not over.”

The interim is the months between legislative sessions – spring, summer and fall.

An individual lawmaker could sponsor a bill urging the state to look at the topic. But Bebout called the issue “done.”

“If I made the decision to not advance those types of bills this session, that’s my decision,” he said. “I could be overridden. That’s the process.”

The amendment, per the Tribune, would have kept “mixed-use” the norm for land management—accommodating hunters, recreationists, energy companies, grazers, and so forth. Land swaps would have been permitted, but only in the same county. In addition, there would have been “no net loss or gain in the lands’ value.”

Late last year, we reported on a tragic story involving the Berkeley Pit outside Butte, Montana. Early December, thousands of snow geese perished after landing in the Pit, a Superfund site that used to be an Anaconda copper mine—now a toxic lake full of heavy metals and other contaminants, as acidic as vinegar. The site, a favorable ecosystem for microbes and tourist destination, has largely not been newsworthy. Since the snow geese catastrophe, according to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, residents are concerned the site could have alternate impacts on the surrounding area:

Residents of this mining city say the snow goose deaths this fall were a wake-up call that raises broader questions about the Berkeley Pit and whether federal regulators will be ready when the former copper mine that collects heavily acidic, metal-laden water reaches capacity.

“We need to be prepared, and they’re not prepared,” former state lawmaker-turned-activist Fritz Daily said. “I’m talking about the environmental future of this town, I’m talking about the economic future of this town, I’m talking about the social future of this town.”

The Anaconda Copper Co. mined thousands of miles of tunnels under Butte over a century, finding gold, silver, lead, zinc, manganese and especially copper, and earning the city of 30,000 the nickname “The Richest Hill on Earth.” The old mine shafts started flooding when mining there ended in 1982, sending contaminated water into the Berkeley Pit. It’s been slowly filling up ever since.

The liquid is expected to reach a critical level in 2023, and environmental officials are finalizing a plan for keeping it from contaminating Butte’s groundwater and a stream at the headwaters of the Columbia River basin. The critical level of 5,410 feet, set by the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology as the lowest elevation in Butte’s drainage system, is the point at which water from the pit and flooded mines under the city could escape into other waterways. Fifty feet above that, the pit and mine water would enter the city’s groundwater.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Atlantic Richfield, which bought Anaconda Copper in 1977; and Montana Resources, owner of an adjacent mine, negotiated a solution that relies on a water treatment plant built near the pit in 2000.

The Horseshoe Bend plant now treats more than 4 million gallons of water a day that would otherwise flow into the pit, and the plan is for it to treat another 3 million gallons a day directly from the pit starting in 2023.

The plant has never handled 7 million gallons at once, but EPA officials say there is enough time for a thorough review to ensure the contaminated water will never escape into the city’s Silver Bow Creek, whose banks have yet to be cleaned of the mine waste that was dumped there for decades.

“We’re going to really start digging into pilot studies and performance testing … to determine what kind of upgrades, what kind of redundancies do we need,” said EPA project manager Nikia Greene.

Atlantic Richfield and Montana Resources, which operates Horseshoe Bend, are confident the treatment plant will work as designed. Atlantic Richfield spokesman Brett Clanton said the plant received $1 million worth of upgrades in 2015, and additional improvements will begin by 2019.

Local activists say Atlantic Richfield favors the treatment plant option because it’s cheaper—not better—than other alternatives. Activists also fear the company will seek a waiver permitting them to dump Berkeley Pit water into Silver Bow Creek, which would affect the whole watershed.

Greene told the Chronicle they are negotiating a waiver with Atlantic Richfield, but called the negotiations confidential.

Finally, over in Colorado, we previously reported University of Denver trustees were mulling whether to “divest” investments in oil, natural gas, and coal companies from their stocks portfolios, a move that had energy industry reps incredulous and some students skeptical. We also reported the university had hired a “task force” to investigate the issue, which held seven hearings between July and October. The task force was asked to write a report to be read to the board at a meeting in January 2017.

Now, according to the Denver Post, DU has delayed a vote planned for last Friday:

The private university’s board of trustees was scheduled to vote on the matter Friday, but a school spokeswoman said the board’s answer now isn’t expected until next week. The board’s meetings are closed to the public.

A DU task force to study fossil fuel divestment has held seven hearings, from July through October. The panel, which includes three university trustees, was formed after an April presentation from students, who focused on the “urgency of the climate crisis, its environmental costs and the University of Denver’s moral obligation to combat it,” according to a statement by task force chairman Jim Griesemer.

[…]

The University of Colorado, Colorado College and Fort Lewis College, along with Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have rejected similar student-led petitions in recent years. Naropa University in Boulder is the only Colorado higher-education institution that has pledged to divest. Yale University, Stanford University, the University of California and the University of Washington have dropped investments in coal or otherwise “partially” divested in fossil fuels.

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