The proposed site of the Blue Arc project. Credit: Montana DEQ

A lawsuit filed in Phillips County District Court last week argues that the Montana Department of Environmental Quality failed to consult with tribes and fully evaluate environmental impacts in its handling of a proposal to remove 1,000 tons of rock from the site of a former gold mine in Zortman.

The Fort Belknap Indian Community, Earthworks and the Montana Environmental Information Center are suing DEQ and Blue Arc, LLC, a Bozeman-based company that has applied for a license to evaluate rock samples collected from the Zortman gold mine in north-central Montana.

If the exploration license is granted, Blue Arc would use an excavator with a hydraulic hammer to remove material from an exposed rock face in an area that was mined for gold and silver by Pegasus Gold in the 1980s and 1990s. Blue Arc would build 2,400 feet of road to access the excavation site, which would cover about 1.4 acres. The collected rock would then be shipped to a facility in Nevada for testing.

The lawsuit maintains the site is still contaminated and the agency failed to disclose impacts to water quality and natural resources that could result from the proposed rock removal.

“DEQ failed to consult with the Tribes regarding the new mining proposal though it had a legal duty to do so, failed to take a hard look at the environmental impacts of mineral exploration at Zortman, and shirked analysis of potentially significant impacts,” the plaintiffs allege.

The lawsuit also outlines some of the environmental damage resulting from the Zortman and Landusky mines, which have cost federal and state agencies more than $77 million in reclamation efforts and will require ongoing water treatment for hundreds — maybe thousands — of years. Though neither mine is located on the Fort Belknap Reservation, the mines have significantly impacted water quality there by contaminating multiple streams running into the southern end of the reservation with cyanide and acid mine drainage. 

Acid mine drainage, which is often associated with gold, silver and copper mines, occurs when sulfide minerals are exposed to water and air, creating sulfuric acid. The sulfuric acid then lowers the pH in both surface and groundwater. It tends to give water an orangey rust color, is harmful to aquatic life and requires extensive, ongoing treatment.

“To this day, the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Tribes continue to experience devastating health and environmental consequences from past mining,” Fort Belknap Indian Community President Andrew Werk, Jr., said in a press release about the lawsuit. “By giving the green light to Zortman exploration without proper tribal consultation and adequate analysis of environmental impact, DEQ has shown shocking indifference to the enormous potential for further water contamination, harm to tribal members, and permanent contamination of tribal lands. It’s as if we have learned nothing from the past.”

DEQ declined to discuss specifics about the lawsuit with Montana Free Press, but the agency did provide some general information about the exploration license Blue Arc has applied for. The agency said it received “quite a bit of public participation” about the proposal and noted that the exploration license has not officially been issued.

Both the lawsuit and the agency’s bonding requirements — $24,500 for this project — have a bearing on when, or if, the project will move forward. The plaintiffs are asking the court to set aside Blue Arc’s exploration license until DEQ conducts a new analysis.

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Billings native Amanda Eggert covers environmental issues for MTFP. Amanda is a graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism who has written for Outside magazine and Outlaw Partners. At Outlaw Partners she led coverage for the biweekly newspaper Explore Big Sky. Contact Amanda at aeggert@montanafreepress.org.