The Indian community of Fort Belknap, the Confederate Salish and Kootenai tribes, the Ksanka Elders Advisory Committee and a coalition of environmental groups have relaunched a legal effort to prevent Hecla Mining Company the operation of two gold and copper mines in northwestern Montana.
Yesterday’s lawsuit represents the latest turning point in a multi-year saga involving the Zortman-Landusky mine, which produced 2.5 million ounces of gold from the Little Rocky Mountains of north-central Montana before Pegasus Gold Inc. filed for bankruptcy in 1998, and the Rock Creek and Montanore mines in Hecla, which hold huge deposits of gold and copper.
In 2018, under the leadership of Governor Steve Bullock, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality sought to prevent Hecla from moving forward with the Rock Creek and Montanore mines until the company reimburses it to the state for the millions of dollars it spent cleaning up acid mine drainage and cyanide pollution resulting from the Zortman and Landusky mines. This pollution has compromised the water supply to the Indian community of Fort Belknap, and mitigation of the contamination is expected to continue for generations.
The problem is a provision in the Metal Mine Reclamation Act that prohibits an executive of a mining company who has failed in his clearance obligations from undertaking new mining operations in the state without first paying off the reclamation bills. condition and restore old mining sites. Hecla challenged DEQ’s decision to label Hecla’s CEO a “bad actor” for his ties to Pegasus and the failed Zortman-Landusky cleanup and sued the department.
Hecla moves forward with Northwest Montana mines
Officials at an Idaho-based mining company developing two large copper and silver mines in northwest Montana said they were not discouraged by a recent move that could allow the state of calling its CEO a “bad actor” because of a mine cleanup failure more than two decades ago in another part of the state.
State lifts roadblock at mines in northwestern Montana
Montana’s Environmental Quality Department has asked a judge to dismiss his “bad actor” case against the CEO of Hecla Mining Co., which is trying to develop two copper and silver mines in County of Lincoln.
The executive in question is Philip Baker Jr., who has been CEO of Hecla since 2003 and its chairman since 2001. Prior to joining Hecla, Baker held various positions at Pegasus Gold Incorporated and its subsidiaries, including a position of CFO of Pegasus Gold and another as vice president and director of Zortman Mining, Inc. He was working under the umbrella of Pegasus when the company filed for bankruptcy in 1998.
The lawsuit over the “bad actor” law continued to roll through the courts until the spring. In May, Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Mike Menahan said the state had a viable claim, but a change of custody at DEQ changed the course of the trial before Menahan could rule on the case. In July, under the leadership of Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte, DEQ director Chris Dorrington recently confirmed the abandonment of the lawsuit, citing the time and money the agency would need to pursue the case and d other priorities of the department. DEQ also said Hecla is complying with state law at the Rock Creek and Montanore mines as well as the Troy mine, which closed in 2015 and is now under reclamation.
In yesterday’s filing in Lewis and Clark County District Court, the tribes and eight conservation groups argue that Dorrington committed a “sudden and unwarranted agency turnaround” by deciding to dismiss the lawsuit. They also questioned DEQ’s “time and money” claim, saying the lawyer representing the agency was working on a voluntary basis.
In addition, the complaint continues, the decision of Dorrington and DEQ ensures that the Montanans, rather than the corporate executives responsible for environmental disasters, remain obligated to pay for the perpetual treatment of the toxic pollution left by Pegasus and Baker in the Zortman, Landusky, Basin Creek and Beal Mountain sites.
Tribes ask court to order DEQ and Dorrington to enforce bad actor provision of Metal Mine Reclamation Act and block Hecla and Baker from mining exploration until Hecla and Baker “rectify their fault “.
The only defendants named in the new lawsuit are Dorrington and DEQ. On a call with Montana Free Press, Hecla’s director of government affairs Mike Satre stressed that neither Hecla nor Baker are defendants, but said Hecla would monitor the progress of the lawsuit for developments that may have an impact on the business.
“The original case was rightly dismissed [and] the bad actor status clearly does not apply to either Hecla or our CEO, Mr Baker, ”Satre said. “Now it is a matter between the department and the parties who brought the lawsuit.”
Environmental groups joining the complaint include Earthworks, Montana Environmental Information Center, Montana Conservation Voters Education Fund, Clark Fork Coalition and Montana Trout Unlimited, as well as three groups – Save our Cabinets, Rock Creek Alliance and Cabinet Resource Group – with a special interest. in protecting Northwestern Montana’s waters, fish and wildlife from negative mining impacts.
DEQ issued exploration permits to Hecla for the Rock Creek mine and an operating permit for the Montanore mine, but both projects have remained stuck to varying degrees in permit limbo since they were proposed for the mine. first by other companies in the early 1980s. Mining officials said the two mines beneath the Cabinet Mountains could yield more than 500 million ounces of gold and 4 billion pounds of copper.
DEQ did not respond to a request for comment at press time.
According to the plaintiffs’ file, the cleanup of the heap-leach cyanide mines operated by Pegasus is expected to exceed $ 80 million – money from federal and state agency budgets.
“It’s hard to imagine how DEQ’s about-face on enforcing ‘bad actors’ serves the Montanians or fits in with decades-long work to clean up and restore waterways and landscapes damaged by the mining, “said Karen Knudsen, executive director of the Clark Fork Coalition. press release about the trial. “By stepping back, DEQ invites mining history to repeat itself – and communities, taxpayers and clean water will pay the price.”
In addition to the lawsuit, the groups submitted to Gianforte a petition signed by more than 3,000 people calling on the governor to “order the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to do its job and immediately implement the bad actor ”.
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