Montana Free Press: Indian community of Fort Belknap calls for federal review of new mining claims

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

New mining concessions in Zortman push for investigation

The Fort Belknap Indian community and conservation groups say a 48-hour lapse after decades of mining concession bans allowed Bozeman-based Blue Arc LLC to stake 10 new mining claims.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

By Amanda Eggert

Montana Free Press

The Indian community of Fort Belknap and three conservation groups are asking the Home Ministry’s Inspector General’s office to investigate the cause of the ministry’s failure to maintain an ore withdrawal – a regulatory tool that prevents Federal agencies to approve new mining claims – in effect at the Zortman – Landusky reclamation area near the Fort Belknap reserve. Following a 48-hour gap in protections on October 5 and 6, 2020, 10 new mining claims were filed in an area still struggling with acid mine drainage clean-up that cost more than $ 77 million to this day and is expected to continue for generations. “We deserve an explanation,” FBIC Chairman Andrew Werk Jr. said in a press release regarding the petition. “Whether the failure of the ministry to properly implement the shutdown is an honest – albeit reckless – error or the result of intentional misconduct, the consequences are enormous for the health and well-being of our people. With such high stakes, we must have a responsibility.

Complaint: Fort Belknap Indian Community [PDF]

In the 1980s and 1990s, 2.5 million ounces of gold were mined from the Zortman and Landusky mines by cyanide heap leaching. In 1998, the owner of the mines, Pegasus Gold, filed for bankruptcy, leaving federal and state agencies with a massive cleanup effort. Due to ancient gold and silver mining operations, the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes are grappling with surface and groundwater pollution as well as metal pollution in the Lesser Rocky Mountains in north-central Canada. Montana for over 20 years. In the complaint, the groups argue that given the research and planning necessary before a person or company can stake and file a mining claim, it is suspicious that Bozeman-based Blue Arc, LLC may have taken advantage the 48-hour window between the expiration of the old order and the establishment of a new one to stake out the 10 new claims. In 2000, to facilitate ongoing reclamation work, the Home Office issued a five-year order preventing entities from filing new mining claims on the site’s 3,530 acres of public land. After three successive five-year extensions, the department was preparing to issue a 20-year ore withdrawal to take effect in October 2020. But because the notice of the 20-year order was published in the Federal Register three days after the expiration of the previous 5-year order, there was a two-day gap during which new mineral claims were not prohibited. The Federal Register is a government logbook where rules, proposed rules, and decrees relating to federal agencies are publicly reported.
Zortman-Landusky mining complex

According to the Indian community of Fort Belknap, untreated waste from the former Zortman-Landusky mining complex is flowing into the Montana reservation. Credit: Courtesy of the Fort Belknap Indian Community
Conservation groups Montana Environmental Information Center, Earthworks, and Trout Unlimited also signed the FBIC letter. The petitioners call on the Inspector General of the Home Office to investigate the reasons why the 20-year ban on claims was not filed in a timely manner, who was responsible for filing the order , whether there had been any communication between the Bureau of Land Management or the Home Office and Blue Arc or its officers, and what steps are being taken to remedy the failure. They also want to know why the new 20-year ore withdrawal decree applies to a smaller geographic area than the previous decree, and who made that decision. The new setback area applies to 842 acres less than the previous one. “The public has spent tens of millions of dollars recovering and controlling pollution at the former Zortman-Landusky mine site. The fact that someone went up there and staked out New the mining claims are a slap in the face for the taxpayer, the Fort Belknap tribe and the region’s clean water, ”Montana Environmental Information Center staff attorney Derf Johnson said in a statement. In the early 2000s, Luke Ployhar, who owns Blue Arc with his wife, purchased mining claims totaling over 1,000 acres from Pegasus’ bankruptcy trustee. Ployhar now owns much of the old mine. He told Montana Free Press on Wednesday that Blue Arc is not currently mining the site, but records he has obtained from Pegasus indicate there is mineralization on his new claims. Part of the reason he’s staked out claims on public property, he said, is to “secure a buffer zone” around the land he owns. Ployhar said there is potential for gold mining at the site based on the results of a mineral exploration application currently submitted to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and the results of future sampling. .
According to the Indian community of Fort Belknap, untreated waste from the former Zortman-Landusky mining complex is flowing into the Montana reservation. Photo courtesy of the Fort Belknap Indian community
Ployhar added that to his knowledge, the complaints were handled by the Bureau of Land Management without a problem. “[The withdrawal] lapsed. We did what we were authorized to do, ”he said.“ I understand that [BLM] has passed and all is well. Ployhar said he was unaware the agency planned to implement a 20-year ore withdrawal order once the five-year order expires. Blue Arc recently applied for a mineral exploration license from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to remove 1,000 tonnes of rock from the former Zortman mine site. The FBIC, Earthworks and MEIC sued DEQ to contest the claim, arguing that the agency failed to consult with the tribes and did not properly consider the impacts of the new mining operations. Blue Arc proposes to 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 in the 1980s and 1990s. If the application is approved, Blue Arc would construct 2,400 feet of road to access the 1.4 acre excavation site. The collected rock would then be shipped to a facility in Nevada for testing. Ployhar said that to the best of his knowledge, DEQ is still evaluating the request.

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 edited the cover of the bi-weekly Explore Big Sky newspaper. Contact Amanda at [email protected]

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

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