Political leaders in Lincoln County are expressing dismay over the state’s decision to label an Idaho company hoping to open two mines in Northwest Montana a “bad actor.”
Last month, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality announced that Hecla Mining Inc. and its president, Phillips Baker, Jr., had violated the state’s Metal Mines Reclamation Act and therefore could not open two copper and silver mines until it paid the state $32 million.
The claims stem from Baker’s time at Pegasus Gold Corp., which went bankrupt in 1998 and left the state with a large cleanup bill from three contaminated mine sites and waterways in north-central Montana. In October 2017, a coalition of environmental groups — including Earthworks, the Montana Environmental Information Center, the Clark Fork Coalition, the Rock Creek Alliance, Save Our Cabinets and the Montana Conservation Voters — requested that the DEQ designate Hecla a “bad actor” because of Baker’s past involvement with Pegasus.
In response, three Hecla subsidiaries, Montanore Minerals Corp., Troy Mine Inc. and RC Resources, sued the state in an effort to block the designation. Mining officials have denied any wrongdoing.
The decision has riled leaders in Lincoln County, where people have long hoped the opening of the Rock Creek and Montanore mines would alleviate years of economic hardship. Lincoln County consistently has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state.
“This is another huge blow to Lincoln County,” Commissioner Mark Peck said. “I’m just sick and tired of this county getting kicked around by the state and federal government.”
Both the Rock Creek and Montanore mines have been tied up in legal challenges and regulatory processes for years. Many locals believed Hecla — which purchased Rock Creek developer Revett Mining Co. in 2015 and Montanore owner Mines Management in 2016 — represented the best shot of those mines opening. Mining officials have said both mines could bring hundreds of new jobs to the area.
Peck, who represents the Libby area on the county commission, said he believes Hecla is a responsible company and would “do it right” if given the chance to open either mine. He said he was especially frustrated that no one from DEQ or Gov. Steve Bullock’s office informed the county of the “bad actor” designation before it was announced last month.
“The fact that they did not reach out to us shows that they are either tone deaf to our situation here or they just don’t give a damn about Lincoln County,” Peck said.
Commissioner Jerry Bennett, who represents the Troy area, echoed Peck’s frustration, adding that he believed designating Baker or Hecla a bad actor is a misinterpretation of the law. The commissioners are not alone either: On April 5, more than 50 legislators from across the state sent a letter to Bullock and DEQ Director Tom Livers chiding them for throwing a wrench in Hecla’s efforts to open the mines.
“Your administration is parroting out-of-state environmental groups’ misleading narrative and not fully weighing the concerns of hardworking Montanans,” wrote Rep. Steve Gunderson, the Libby Republican who authored the letter. “Montana needs to ensure a healthy economy and a healthy environment for Montana residents. We can have both.”
The environmental groups have responded to the criticisms by saying they simply want mining companies to conduct their business responsibly.
“Montanans have spent decades and millions of dollars cleaning up rivers and streams contaminated by irresponsible mining, and the work is far from over,” said Karen Knudsen, executive director of the Clark Fork Coalition. “The ‘bad actor’ law simply requires full responsibility from mining executives for their previous messes. In the case of Pegasus, it’s long past time these polluters are held accountable.”