The Bad Actor Law and Common Sense

The decision by the Montana DEQ to enforce the bad actor law against Hecla's Phillips Baker is perfectly sensible

By Jim Nash

When Webb Scott Brown of the Chamber of Commerce attacks Montana’s enforcement of a state law that protects taxpayers from shouldering the cleanup bill for mining companies, it’s clearly time to impose an old-fashioned smell test. In weaving together his argument, he got many of his facts wrong.

I live in the community where Phillips Baker’s company proposes to mine. And as the retired owner of a sawmill and wood products company I know the challenges of creating jobs and making a livelihood in rural Montana. I also understand the obligations businesses and their leaders must take on when they seek the privilege of developing our state’s natural resources.

From my perspective, the bad actor law is common sense. It simply says that mining companies and their top executives don’t get another shot at our state’s natural resources if they walked out on their cleanup obligations in the past — unless they’re prepared to pay back the state for cleanup work the public had to do in the company’s place.

Given that the bad actor law was enacted by a Republican-controlled legislature, signed into law by a Republican governor, it’s far-fetched to suggest that the law is ridiculous and irresponsible.  

The decision by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to enforce the bad actor law against Baker is perfectly sensible. Before taking the helm at Hecla, Baker was a top executive at Pegasus Gold, which operated gold mines across Montana and reneged on its cleanup obligations.

Brown claims that Baker is being unfairly targeted because Pegasus filed for bankruptcy after Baker had departed. Not true. Pegasus filed for bankruptcy in January 1998 while Baker was serving as the top financial official.

The collapse of Pegasus on Baker’s watch left a sprawling mess of dangerous contamination at multiple mines. Pollution from the Pegasus mines has contaminated drinking water, harmed agricultural lands, and caused lasting damage to fish and wildlife habitat and our public lands. Baker has since moved on, but those downstream of these Pegasus mines have been left to deal with the mess through no fault of their own.

Brown also claims that DEQ used the mine’s reclamation bond to clean up the sites, but the cleanup costs have far surpassed the bond. More than $27 million in public funds (state and federal) had been spent at just the Zortman Landusky mine, and the public will be burdened with $1 – 2 million in costs every year, forever, to treat contaminated water at the site.

Sadly, there is no quick fix for the disastrous pollution Montana faces at the abandoned Pegasus mines. Hecla, on the other hand, can solve its legal problem under Montana’s bad actor statute at any time by dissociating from Baker.

At the end of the day, Montana can ill afford to subsidize mining executives that can’t be bothered to clean up after themselves. In fact, many Montanans are concerned about protecting the more than 71,000 jobs provided by Montana’s $7.1 billion outdoor recreation industry.

Inviting back the same mining executives whose companies have trashed our state’s environment in the past would not serve the tens of thousands of Montanans who want those jobs for the long-term.

The state is right to enforce our laws and protect the many Montana businesses that operate responsibly and rely on a clean and healthy environment.

Jim Nash is the former owner of Specialty Beams, a sawmill and wood products company in Noxon.