The Fort Belknap Indian Community and a coalition of conservation groups are trying to join the Montana Department of Environmental Quality’s lawsuit against Hecla Mining Company, the Idaho-based mining giant currently trying to open two copper and silver mines in Northwest Montana.
Earlier this year, the Montana DEQ moved to designate Hecla President and CEO Phillips S. Baker a “bad actor” for his involvement with a now-closed mine near the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. The designation means that neither Baker nor any company under his control can open or operate mines in Montana.
Prior to coming to Hecla, Baker was a vice president at Pegasus Gold. Pegasus went bankrupt in 1998, leaving the state of Montana with a $32 million cleanup bill at a gold mine in the Little Rocky Mountains of north-central Montana. The state also spends about $2 million annually for water-treatment systems at the site. State officials say Baker will not be able to engage in mining until he reimbursed the state for the gold mine cleanup. Environmental groups — including Clark Fork Coalition, Earthworks, Montana Environmental Information Center, Rock Creek Alliance and Save Our Cabinets — who raised concerns about Baker last year praised the decision.
The bad actor law, passed in 1989, is meant to hold those who fail to clean up polluted mine sites responsible. Since then, it has only been used once, according to Kristi Ponozzo, public policy director of DEQ. Ponozzo is quick to note that only Baker has been designated a bad actor and that no action has been taken against Hecla.
Hecla officials have sued the state alleging that its interpretation of the state law is wrong and that Baker is innocent of any wrongdoing. Baker has said in previous interviews that he was not a principal at Pegasus and that “decisions affecting the reclamation, including the bankruptcy settlement and the decision to cease mining operations at Zortman (gold mine)” were made after his departure from the company in early 1998.
In a press release issued by Earthjustice, Andrew Werk, Jr., president of the Fort Belknap Indian Community Council, stated that Baker should not be able to open new mines while the Fort Belknap community deals with the fallout from his previous employer.
“The Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Tribes of the Fort Belknap Indian Community are distressed that a past leader of Pegasus Gold is now running Hecla Mining, who now proposes to develop two new mining projects in the Cabinet Mountains,” Werk said. “The principals of Pegasus should not be allowed to profit from new mines while our community continues to struggle with the mining pollution Pegasus left behind at the Zortman and Landusky sites. Pegasus has caused irreparable damage to waters flowing into Swift Gulch and into Little Peoples Creek. Acid mine drainage continues to migrate downstream. Waters in Swift Gulch and other drainages will have to be treated forever. Pegasus and its directors must be held accountable.”
The coalition’s motion to intervene is currently pending before a Lewis and Clark County District Court judge.
Hecla purchased the Rock Creek and Montanore mine projects in 2015 and 2016. Both proposed mines are beneath the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness and, if brought to production, could produce more than 500 million ounces of silver and 4 billion pounds of copper in their lifetime.
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