The Ghost of Mining’s Past Threatens Cabinet Mountains

Mining executives should not be able to profit from new ventures while Montanans are still dealing with their past messes

By Bonnie Gestring and Karen Knudsen

The Beal Mountain Mine is a leaky and defunct cyanide-leach gold mine perched above a possibly unstable fault on public lands in the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest near Anaconda. In December, the U.S. Forest Service hosted a public meeting on cleanup efforts at the mine.

The site receives a huge amount of snow, and each year when that snow melts, water seeps through giant piles of mine waste and becomes contaminated with arsenic, selenium and cyanide. The water treatment building has been vandalized, overcome with mold, and struck by lightning. It needs to be replaced.

The Forest Service spends about $300,000 a year in public funds to collect and treat the highly contaminated water before it reaches the upper Clark Fork River. More than $15 million has been spent to date, with no end in sight: the site will require water treatment for the foreseeable future. Fixing the overarching problems that plague this mine will require even more money. While the Forest Service is doing good work in its efforts to manage this mess, every year seems to bring a new set of challenges.

Why are taxpayers footing the bill, you ask? Because Pegasus Gold went bankrupt and left taxpayers with the cleanup costs for Beal Mountain, along with the Zortman-Landusky and Basin Creek Mines. Cleanup at all three sites continues to this day at great public expense.

Nevertheless, now one of the former Pegasus Gold executives, Phillips S. Baker, wants to open two new mines under the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness with his new company, Hecla.

Fortunately, the state of Montana has taken enforcement action against the mining company under the state’s “bad actor” law. This law is simple: it holds corporations responsible for cleaning up after themselves. It prohibits mining executives whose companies failed to complete required mine reclamation from undertaking new mining projects in the state unless they rectify the mess and pay back the cleanup costs, with interest.

Letting the leadership of Pegasus profit from new mining projects in Montana while the public is still paying to clean up that company’s old messes would be unfair and irresponsible. It’s particularly inappropriate when the new plans threaten to dewater the wilderness rivers and streams that provide critical refuge to fish and wildlife and produce some of the purest water in the nation.

The environmental review of the two mines, released by the Forest Service, predicts that mining underneath the wilderness area will eliminate 97 to 100 percent of summer flows from overlying rivers and streams, effectively drying up important trout streams on a seasonal basis. Some of the worst effects are predicted to last for up to 1,300 years and will occur in the headwaters of the East Fork Bull River and East Fork Rock Creek — the two most important bull trout recovery streams in the Lower Clark Fork, and a source of crystal-clear water to those that live downstream.

Given the science and history here, we cannot have faith that the Cabinet Mountains, and the mountains’ clean water and wildlife that are so critical to Montana’s natural resource-based economy, will be protected.

Mining executives should not be able to profit from new ventures while Montanans are still dealing with their past messes. Let’s hold mining executives responsible for their messes, and keep them away from our state’s greatest treasures.

Bonnie Gestring is the Northwest Program Director for Earthworks. Karen Knudsen is the Executive Director of the Clark Fork Coalition.

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