Groups Ask DEQ to Halt Unlawful Mining by Former Leader of Bankrupt Mining Company
Today, a coalition of conservation groups called on the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (“DEQ”) to enforce the “bad actor” provisions of state mining law by suspending authorizations for two massive hard rock mining projects proposed in northwest Montana’s Cabinet Mountains.
In a letter to DEQ, the coalition asked the agency to suspend state permits for Hecla Mining Company’s proposed Rock Creek and Montanore mines because Hecla is led by a former top official of Pegasus Gold Incorporated, which owned the notorious Zortman-Landusky, Basin Creek, and Beal Mountain mines. Acid mine drainage and toxic metals from those mines have polluted streams and groundwater, threatened a vital native trout fishery, and contaminated sacred sites of the Fort Belknap Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Tribes.
When Pegasus went bankrupt in 1998, it left the State of Montana and federal agencies to bear the burden of tens of millions of dollars in unpaid reclamation costs. As of January 2017, public agencies had spent more than $74 million on reclamation and water treatment at Zortman-Landusky alone, and costs continue to mount because water treatment will be required in perpetuity.
Stung by the state’s experience with Pegasus, Montana lawmakers in 2001 expanded the “bad actor” provisions of the Metal Mine Reclamation Act, which prohibit individuals whose former companies failed to complete required mine reclamation from undertaking new mining projects in the state—unless they pay DEQ back, with interest, for reclamation carried out at public expense and rectify the reclamation failures at their old mines.
Yet DEQ has issued permits allowing Hecla, the company now helmed by former Pegasus Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Phillips S. Baker, Jr., to develop new mines on sensitive lands in the Cabinet Mountains. Hecla’s wholly-owned subsidiaries hold an exploration license for the Rock Creek mine near Noxon and an operating permit for the Montanore mine near Libby. The proposed mines would inflict substantial and irreversible damage on water quality, wildlife, and wilderness values in the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness and surrounding public and private lands.
“Pegasus is the poster child for irresponsible mining, and Montanans continue to suffer from the company’s toxic legacy,” said Earthjustice attorney Katherine O’Brien, who is representing the conservation coalition. “It is illegal and unjust for DEQ to let the leadership of Pegasus profit from new mines in Montana while the state continues emptying its pockets to clean up the messes Pegasus left behind.”
“Pegasus desecrated the land, water, and sacred sites of the Fort Belknap Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Tribes and then disappeared into bankruptcy,” said Fort Belknap Community Council President Mark Azure. “It would be a great injustice to let the former leadership of Pegasus profit from new mining ventures in Montana while the Tribes continue to suffer from the devastating pollution Pegasus left behind at the Zortman-Landusky mines.” Mr. Azure sent DEQ a letter supporting the conservation coalition’s enforcement request.
“Montanans have repeatedly footed the bill for mining companies who profit from our resources and then fail to perform the required reclamation,” said Karen Knudsen, Executive Director of the Clark Fork Coalition. “We have laws on the books to prevent this destructive history from repeating itself. The DEQ simply needs to enforce the law.”
“Pegasus left Montana taxpayers with a crushing financial burden and severe water pollution that will continue for generations,” said Bonnie Gestring of Earthworks. “The law is clear: before they do any more mining, bad actors need to take responsibility for their messes.”
Jim Jensen, Executive Director of the Montana Environmental Information Center, said, “The ‘bad actor’ law we have today was advanced by Governor Judy Martz’s administration because she knew that bad actors are bad news for responsible mining in Montana and cost taxpayers millions of dollars to clean up after them. It’s important that this law is enforced to make clear that Montana is no place for irresponsible mining companies.”
“Montanans don’t want another toxic mining legacy,” said Mary Crowe Costello of the Rock Creek Alliance and Save Our Cabinets. “The Rock Creek and Montanore mines, which are planned in the heart of a spectacular and ecologically vital wilderness, must comply with the laws that protect Montana’s water, taxpayers, and the communities that are most at risk from mining.”
In their letter, Earthworks, Montana Environmental Information Center, Clark Fork Coalition, Rock Creek Alliance, and Save Our Cabinets called on DEQ to enforce state law by suspending Hecla’s permits for the Rock Creek and Montanore mines within 60 days.
The Rock Creek and Montanore mine projects proposed by Coeur D’Alene-based Hecla Mining Company (NYSE: HL) threaten to inflict serious, irreversible impacts on one of the nation’s original wilderness areas and the invaluable water and wildlife resources found there. The Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, where the mines would be located, boasts some of the purest waters in the lower-48 United States and harbors important populations of threatened bull trout and grizzly bears, which are protected by the Endangered Species Act. If constructed, the Rock Creek and Montanore mines are predicted to drain water from wilderness streams, reducing flows for more than 1,000 years; pollute the Clark Fork River and tributaries that provide critical habitat for bull trout; and threaten higher levels of human-caused mortality for the precariously small population of grizzly bears that is struggling to maintain a foothold in the Cabinet Mountains. The Montanore mine alone would generate up to 120 million tons of mining waste, which would be stored in perpetuity on the doorstep of the wilderness.
Citing substantial threats to grizzly bears, bull trout, and wilderness waters, in May 2017 the U.S. District Court in Montana ruled that the authorizations for the Montanore mine issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service violated the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, and other federal laws. In addition, Montana DEQ has determined that full development of the Montanore mine would violate state water quality laws and has withheld authorization for Hecla’s subsidiary to advance that project past its initial evaluation phase. Nevertheless, Hecla continues to pursue federal and state permits for the project.
For the Rock Creek mine, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is preparing a new analysis of the project under the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Forest Service recently issued a final Environmental Impact Statement and proposed Record of Decision approving the project, which has drawn formal objections from conservation groups.
Despite the serious threats Hecla’s proposals pose to threatened wildlife, clean water, and wilderness values, Senator Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and Representative Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.) have pressed federal officials to prioritize approvals for the Rock Creek and Montanore mines. In a September 28, 2017, letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Senator Daines and Representative Gianforte pledged to personally assist Hecla in advancing its projects, including through “legislative vehicles.”
Katherine O’Brien, Earthjustice, (406) 586-9699
Bonnie Gestring, Earthworks, (406) 549-7361
Jim Jensen, Montana Environmental Information Center, (406) 443-2520
Karen Knudsen, Clark Fork Coalition, (406) 542-0539
Mary Crowe Costello, Rock Creek Alliance and Save Our Cabinets, (208) 610-4896
Mark L. Azure, President, Fort Belknap Community Council, Fort Belknap Indian Community, (406) 353-2205