Yesterday in a victory for clean water, the Montana Supreme Court rejected a key pollution permit for the proposed Montanore silver-copper mine in the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness in Northwest Montana. The Court ruled that Idaho-based Hecla Mining Company and its subsidiary Montanore Minerals Corporation cannot rely on decades-old pollution standards to degrade pristine streams on public lands.
The Montanore Mine would bore beneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness and pollute multiple streams designated as “high quality” waters under Montana law with copper, zinc, chromium, iron, manganese, ammonia, sediment, and other pollutants that are harmful or toxic to aquatic life. While Hecla has claimed that the mine would use state-of-the-art technology, it tried to rely on an expired water pollution authorization issued to a different company in the 1990s to evade current Montana law that protects our cleanest waters. The Supreme Court ruled that strategy is illegal and invalidated the mine’s pollution permit.
Earthjustice brought the lawsuit against the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and Hecla subsidiary Montanore Minerals Corporation on behalf of Montana Environmental Information Center, Earthworks, and Save Our Cabinets.
“Hecla’s claims that it would bring modern, environmentally-friendly mining to Montana ring hollow when the company has to rely on water pollution standards that haven’t passed muster since the 1990s,” said Katherine O’Brien, Earthjustice attorney who represented the conservation groups in the lawsuit. “The company is threatening pristine streams that are home to imperiled native fish. The Court’s decision rightly protects those irreplaceable waters by holding the company accountable to 21st century Montana law.”
“This is a good day for clean water,” said Bonnie Gestring, Northwest Program Director for Earthworks. “The Supreme Court’s decision prevents Montanore from unnecessarily polluting Montana streams with mine pollution. Modern mines need to meet modern standards, not those that applied nearly three decades ago.”
“Clean water is essential for Montana and our way of life, especially in Wilderness areas,” said Derf Johnson with the Montana Environmental Information Center. “We’re happy to see the Court uphold protections that keep our water clean, especially in the face of a mining company that the state has labeled a ‘Bad Actor.’”
“Our heritage of spectacular public lands and clean water are part of what makes Montana so unique,” said Mary Costello, Executive Director of Save Our Cabinets. “This decision affirms that the federal and state laws enacted to protect these irreplaceable resources must be followed by everyone.”
Hecla Mining Company is pressing to develop two massive mines — the Montanore and Rock Creek projects — beneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness in northwest Montana. The wilderness and adjacent National Forest lands are braided by high-elevation streams that are among the purest waters in the lower-48 United States and harbor vital populations of bull trout — a native fish species protected by the Endangered Species Act — as well as Westslope cutthroat trout and other sensitive, coldwater fish that are facing increasing threats in our warming world. The area also supports one of the last five grizzly bear populations that persist in the lower-48 today.
A coalition of conservation groups and traditional cultural leaders from the Ktunaxa (Kootenai) Nation has challenged multiple illegal permits for the projects in state and federal court. In addition, Montana DEQ is pursuing legal action against Hecla, its Montana subsidiaries, and its CEO Phillips S. Baker, Jr., for violating the “bad actor” provisions of Montana’s mining law. Baker served as a top official for Pegasus Gold when it declared bankruptcy in 1998, leaving behind a toxic mess at the company’s Zortman-Landusky, Beal Mountain, and Basin Creek gold mines that has burdened Montana communities and taxpayers ever since. DEQ is asking a state district court in Helena to rule that Baker cannot profit from new mines in Montana, through Hecla or any other company he runs, unless he reimburses the public for the costs of cleaning up the messes his former companies left behind.