Montana Free Press: Fort Belknap Indian community blasts state over mining decision

According to the Fort Belknap Indian Community, untreated waste from the former Zortman-Landusky mining complex is flowing into the reservation in Montana. Photo courtesy of Fort Belknap Indian Community

Tribes and conservation groups challenge DEQ to end ‘bad actors’ lawsuit

The state environmental agency has dropped a lawsuit against a mining executive once involved in a company that left taxpayers liable for millions

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

By Amanda Eggert

Montana Free Press

The Fort Belknap Indian community and a coalition of nonprofit environmental groups said this week they plan to sue Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality for failing to meet its obligations under the Metal Mine. Complaint Act. In a filing Aug. 2 in Lewis and Clark County District Court, the groups said they were ‘disappointed’ by DEQ’s recent decision not to call Hecla chairman Phillips Baker, Jr. a ‘bad actor’ for not cleaning up the Zortman-Landusky gold mine when he was vice -president of Pegasus Gold. Pegasus filed for bankruptcy in 1998, leaving the state with an acid mine drainage cleanup effort that is expected to continue for generations. The agency’s decision to dismiss the lawsuit to appoint Hecla and Baker as ‘bad actors’ means Hecla won’t have to repay the state for the tens of millions of dollars it spent cleaning up the Zortman-Landusky mine in north-central Montana before to be able to move forward with two silver and copper projects. mines in northwest Montana.
Zortman-Landusky mine

According to the Fort Belknap Indian Community, untreated waste from the former Zortman-Landusky mining complex is flowing into the reservation in Montana. Photo courtesy of Fort Belknap Indian Community
In 2015, Hecla purchased the Rock Creek and Montanure mines south of Libby in hopes of extracting silver and copper from what is believed to be one of the largest untapped deposits in the United States. or the other metal in the world. But the mines have been blocked by a series of lawsuits for decades. In 2018, Montana sought to ban Hecla and Baker from seeking new mining permits in the state until they cleaned up old mining projects, including the Zortman-Landusky mine. This measure was taken under the administration of former Democratic Governor Steve Bullock. Gov. Greg Gianforte, a Republican who took office in January, took a different approach to the embattled project. last July, Gianforte hosted a campaign event at Hecla’s Libby office; a year later, Gianforte’s DEQ announced that it would dismiss the lawsuit against Hecla and Baker. “After careful analysis, DEQ has decided not to pursue the matter,” the agency said in a July 14 press release. She cited “a number of factors, including complex procedural hurdles that complicate the case and risk undermining DEQ’s ultimate goal of preventing bad actors from operating in Montana” in her ruling. agency to dismiss case against Hecla and Baker, he argued that he would rather deal with the problem of bad actors through legislative rather than judicial means. The Fort Belknap Indian community and five environmental groups that intervened in the lawsuit said DEQ was wrong for not “enforcing Montana law and protecting the interests of Montana residents.” The bands said well they can’t To prevent the department from asking for the lawsuit to be dismissed, they plan to take legal action against the agency for its failure to enforce the “bad actor” provision of the Mental Mines Reclamation Act. “DEQ has done eighty to enforce the Bad Actors Act,” Rock Creek Alliance executive director Mary Costello said in a press release about the bands’ decision to challenge DEQ’s handling of the situation. “They are allowing political favors from the mining industry to undermine the law, and in doing so, abdicate their responsibility to protect Montana taxpayers from present and future liabilities.” “The State of Montana alone has contributed over $32 million to this effort and more will be needed as the cleanup costs will be in perpetuity,” Fort Belknap Indian Community President Andrew Werk said. Jr., in the press release.

“It is the responsibility of DEQ and the Gianforte administration to uphold the law and not allow Hecla Mining and Baker to profit from new mines while the Fort Belknap Indian community and other communities in Montana continue to address ongoing mining pollution,” Werk said. “Their decision to waive law enforcement is wrong, plain and simple.” Hecla and DEQ did not immediately respond to Montana Free Press’s request for comment Tuesday afternoon.

Billings native Amanda Eggert covers environmental issues for MTFP. Amanda is a graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism and has written for Outside magazine and Outlaw Partners. At Outlaw Partners, she led the coverage of the bi-weekly newspaper Explore Big Sky. Contact Amanda at [email protected]

Note: This story was originally published on Montana Free Press. It is released under a Creative Commons license.

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