Opponents of Initiative 186 declared victory Tuesday night, even as votes continued to be counted. And by Wednesday morning, with nearly all of the vote tallied, the initiative had been soundly rejected, with 58 percent of voters voting no and 42 percent voting yes.
That means voters have rejected a contentious proposal that would have required the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to deny approval for any new hardrock mine unless it could provide "clear and convincing evidence" that it will not require perpetual treatment of water.
Tammy Johnson, executive director of the Montana Mining Association, which has funded much of the opposition to the measure, was in a celebratory mood after the win.
"We are absolutely thrilled that our miners, their families and their communities can move forward without threat of what the initiative would have meant to them," Johnson said. "Our miners today are very happy to go back to their jobs, their families, their lives and are pleased that the people of Montana wanted to keep this great industry moving forward."
Both STOP I-186 to Protect Miners and Jobs and Yes for Responsible Mining, which backed the measure, waged fierce campaigns over the measure, which supporters say is necessary to protect Montana's environmental health and which opponents argue would imperil the future of mining in the Treasure State.
With so much at stake, the two main committees campaigning on either side of the issue have raised millions as part of the effort to sway voters.
Yes for Responsible Mining raised some $1.3 million for its campaign to pass the measure, according to reports filed with the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices. STOP I-186 to Protect Miners and Jobs raised approximately $5.5 million, with more than $4.3 million of that coming from the Montana Mining Association.
As that money has been spent, both sides have accused the other of campaigning unfairly for their respective positions.
In October, sponsors of the initiative filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging Sandfire Resources Inc., a foreign-owned company, was illegally bankrolling the campaign against the proposal.
The next day, opponents of the initiative filed a complaint with the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices alleging proponents sent text messages that did not comply with campaign law and contained false information. That complaint was dismissed a week later.
As the battle over I-186 was waged right up to Election Day, a barometer of how voters felt about the measure was released Oct. 24, when a Montana Television Network News and Montana State University poll found 50.6 percent of respondents were for the measure, 28.6 were against it and 19.8 percent did not yet know how they would vote.
But Johnson said Tuesday night that her group had conducted two internal polls that told a different story. While she did not divulge exactly what those polls said, Johnson said they left her group feeling "optimistic."
Those internal polls proved correct on Election Day.
In a statement, Dave Galt, executive director of the Stop I-186 to Protect Miners and Jobs said, “Regardless of their political affiliation, Montanans agree that I-186 is unnecessary and would have upset the balance we have achieved between mining and protecting the environment in our state."
David Brooks, Montana Trout Unlimited's executive director and co-director of Yes for Responsible Mining, could not immediately be reached for comment on Wednesday morning.