The Fort Belknap Indian Community, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Ksanka Elders Advisory Committee and a coalition of environmental groups have revived a legal effort to prevent Hecla Mining Company from operating two silver and copper mines in northwestern Montana.
Yesterday’s lawsuit represents the latest turn in a multiyear 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 Hecla’s Rock Creek and Montanore mines, which are believed to hold huge deposits of silver and copper.
In 2018, under Gov. Steve Bullock, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality sought to block Hecla from moving forward with the Rock Creek and Montanore mines until the company reimbursed the state for millions of dollars it’s spent cleaning up acid mine drainage and cyanide pollution stemming from the Zortman and Landusky mines. That pollution has compromised the Fort Belknap Indian Community’s water supply, and mitigation of the contamination is expected to continue for generations.
At issue is a provision of the Metal Mine Reclamation Act that bars an executive of a mining company that has reneged on its cleanup duties from undertaking new mining operations in the state without first repaying reclamation bills and restoring former mining sites. Hecla disputed DEQ’s decision to label Hecla’s CEO a “bad actor” for his connections to Pegasus and the failed Zortman-Landusky cleanup and sued the department.
Officials with an Idaho-based mining company developing two large copper and silver mines in Northwest Montana said they are undeterred by a recent ruling that could let the state label its CEO a “bad actor” because of a failed mine clean-up more than two decades ago in a different part of the state.
The Montana Department of Environmental Quality has asked a judge to dismiss its ‘bad actor’ case against the CEO of Hecla Mining Co., which is trying to develop two copper and silver mines in Lincoln County.
The executive in question is Phillips S. Baker, Jr., who has been Hecla’s CEO since 2003 and its president since 2001. Prior to joining Hecla, Baker held various positions with Pegasus Gold Incorporated and its subsidiaries, including one post as Pegasus Gold’s chief financial officer and another as vice president and director of Zortman Mining, Inc. He was working under the Pegasus umbrella when the company filed for bankruptcy in 1998.
The lawsuit over the “bad actor” statute continued to wind through the courts into this spring. In May, Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Mike Menahan indicated the state had a viable claim, but a changing of the guard at DEQ shifted the lawsuit’s trajectory before Menahan could rule on the case. In July, under Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte, recently confirmed DEQ Director Chris Dorrington dropped the lawsuit, citing the time and money the agency would need to prosecute the case and other department priorities. DEQ also said Hecla was in compliance with state law at the Rock Creek and Montanore mines as well as the Troy Mine, which closed in 2015 and is now in reclamation.
In yesterday’s filing in Lewis and Clark County District Court, the tribes and eight conservation groups argue that Dorrington committed an “abrupt and unjustified agency reversal” by moving to dismiss the suit. They also cast doubt on DEQ’s “time and money” claim, saying counsel representing the agency was working pro bono.
“Moreover,” the complaint continues, “Dorrington and DEQ’s decision ensures that Montanans, rather than the corporate officials responsible for the environmental disasters, remain on the hook to pay for perpetual treatment of the toxic pollution left by Pegasus and Baker at the Zortman, Landusky, Basin Creek, and Beal Mountain sites.”
The tribes are asking the court to order DEQ and Dorrington to enforce the bad actor provision of the Metal Mine Reclamation Act and block Hecla and Baker from mineral exploration until Hecla and Baker “rectify their default.”
The only defendants named in the new lawsuit are Dorrington and DEQ. In a call with Montana Free Press, Hecla Director of Governmental Affairs Mike Satre emphasized that neither Hecla nor Baker are defendants, but said Hecla will monitor the lawsuit’s progress for developments that might impact the company.
“The original case has been rightly dismissed [and] the bad actor statute clearly does not apply to either Hecla or our CEO, Mr. Baker,” Satre said. “Now this is a matter between the department and the parties who have brought the suit.”
Environmental groups joining in 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 particular interest in protecting northwestern Montana’s waters, fish and wildlife from adverse mining impacts.
DEQ has issued exploration permits to Hecla for the Rock Creek Mine and an operating permit for the Montanore Mine, but both projects have been stuck in varying degrees of permitting limbo since they were first proposed by other companies in the early 1980s. Mining officials have said the two mines beneath the Cabinet Mountains could net more than 500 million ounces of silver and 4 billion pounds of copper.
DEQ didn’t respond to a request for comment by press time.
According to the plaintiffs’ filing, cleanup from the cyanide heap-leach mines operated by Pegasus is expected to exceed $80 million — money that comes out of the budgets of federal and state agencies.
“It’s hard to imagine how DEQ’s about-face on ‘bad actor’ enforcement serves Montanans or fits with the decades-long work to clean up and restore mining-damaged waterways and landscapes,” Clark Fork Coalition Executive Director Karen Knudsen said in a press release about the lawsuit. “By backing away, DEQ is inviting mining history to repeat itself — and communities, taxpayers and clean water will be the ones paying the price.”
In addition to the lawsuit, the groups have submitted to Gianforte a petition signed by more than 3,000 people calling on the governor to “direct the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to do its job and enforce the Bad Actor provision immediately.”
This story was updated Nov. 12, 2021 to correct the mineral deposits at the Rock Creek and Montanore mines. They are silver and copper — not, as the story originally stated, gold and copper.
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