Tribes, Conservation Groups Vow Continued Fight Against Irresponsible Mining After “Bad Actor” Retirement

Phillips Baker, Jr., retires from Hecla Mining Company leaving unreclaimed mining disasters behind


Shiloh Hernandez, Earthjustice, (406) 426-9649,

Bonnie Gestring, Earthworks, (406) 546-8386,

Derf Johnson, Montana Environmental Information Center, (406) 581-4634,

Phillips Baker, Jr., CEO, president, and director of Hecla Mining Company, abruptly retired in a victory for Montana’s environment. Baker was a “bad actor” under Montana law for his unreclaimed mining disasters at Zortman-Landusky, Beal Mountain, and Basin Creek. His retirement will help ensure that Montana’s environment is safeguarded from the worst mining practices. Tribes and conservation groups filed a motion to voluntarily dismiss their claim in their ongoing Bad Actor litigation today, but vowed to continue to fight to enforce Montana law to prevent additional irresponsible mining that enriches out-of-state corporate polluters and executives while leaving Montanans with the cost of perpetual pollution.

“The Cabinet Mountains hold an important position in the relationship between the Ksanka (Kootenai), Salish, and Qlispe people, and all of creation, with the Ksanka holding a particularly special connection to the area,” said Vernon Finley, director of the Kootenai Culture Committee and member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. “While this place is now safe from one bad actor, we stand firm in our resolve to protect our ancestral territory from mining that threatens our sacred places and landscapes. The lands, waters, and wildlife in the Cabinet Mountains are too precious to let our guard down.”

Phillips Baker, Jr., orchestrated the bankruptcy of Pegasus Gold in 1998, leaving the state of Montana with tens of millions of dollars in cleanup costs when the company abandoned its operations at the Zortman-Landusky, Beal Mountain, and Basin Creek gold mines. Baker, meanwhile, took with him a generous “golden parachute” of personal wealth worth millions of dollars. Upon retirement from Hecla, Baker will leave with nearly 1% of the company’s stock worth roughly $30 million, while Montanans continue to clean up the mess he’s left behind.

“After leaving behind unending water pollution and massive environmental damage in places like Zortman and the Ft. Belknap Indian Community, Phillips Baker did not deserve a second chance at mining in Montana,” said David Brooks, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited. “But ridding our state of one bad actor does not end our efforts to protect cold, clean water and bull trout from risky mining ventures in a place like the Cabinets.”

Tribes and conservation groups filed suit in 2021 to compel the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to fulfill its legal duty to enforce Montana’s Bad Actor law against Hecla Mining Company and Phillips Baker, Jr. Tribal leaders and conservationists expressed concern about the devastation to the land and water from Baker’s former mining operations and the threat of proposed new mines. Phillips Baker, Jr.’s retirement follows dogged enforcement of Montana’s Bad Actor law by the plaintiffs. The groups compelled DEQ to bring the initial enforcement action, then brought their own when DEQ abruptly abandoned its enforcement effort.

“Those of us who live or recreate in the Cabinet Mountains of northwestern Montana know how important it is to protect this special place from irresponsible mining executives,” said Mary Costello of the Rock Creek Alliance and Save Our Cabinets. “We are relieved that Phillips Baker is no longer at the helm of Hecla Mining Company, but regret that Montana DEQ reversed direction and chose not to enforce the Bad Actor law. Regardless of what mining company or mining executive arrives next on the scene to push through an ill-conceived mining scheme, we will be ready to protect the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness and our clean water.”

The Bad Actor law was amended in 2001 in direct response to the Pegasus Gold bankruptcy to prevent senior mining executives and companies from receiving a new permit to mine in Montana if they’ve failed to clean up past operations unless they reimburse the state for those cleanup costs. DEQ filed a Bad Actor enforcement action against Hecla and Baker in March 2018. After the State District Court ruled that DEQ did indeed have jurisdiction over the Idaho-based company and Baker, DEQ announced it was dropping the case, citing the election of a new governor, among other reasons.

“After burdening Montana with endless clean-up costs and widespread pollution at his former operations, we’re heartened that Baker was never able to receive a new permit to mine in Montana during his tenure at Hecla,” said Bonnie Gestring, northwest program director at Earthworks. “We will continue our efforts to protect Montana’s clean water and public lands from corporate bad actors and irresponsible mining projects.”

“Phillips Baker Jr.’s retirement marks a significant victory for Montana,” said Montana Conservation Voters Executive Director Whitney Tawney. “However, despite this ‘bad actor’ no longer heading Hecla, our commitment to combating irresponsible mining practices remains unwavering. We will continue to champion protecting Montana for future generations, ensuring swift accountability and vigilant oversight.”

“All Montanans should breathe a sigh of relief that this perpetual ‘bad actor’ is no longer destroying our environment and saddling the rest of us with cleanup costs,” said Shiloh Hernandez, senior attorney with Earthjustice’s Northern Rockies Office. “While Baker may be gone, we will be cleaning up the mess he left behind forever. We will not rest until the laws we have in place to protect against this sort of disaster are actually used as they were intended.”

Tribes and conservation groups continue to work to protect some of Montana’s most iconic species in the Cabinet Mountains, including grizzly bears, wolverines, and Endangered Species Act-listed bull trout. Hecla’s proposed Montanore Mine gravely threatens the integrity of the Cabinet Mountains and the survival of these threatened species.

“Now that Phillips Baker is no longer at the helm of Hecla, Montanans can breathe just a bit easier knowing that a bad actor is not attempting to open another mine in Montana,” stated Derf Johnson, deputy director of the Montana Environmental Information Center. “However, even without Baker, Hecla still intends to open a dangerous mine in Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, and we are not going to give up in assuring that the mine never proceeds.”

Earthjustice represents the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Fort Belknap Indian Community, Ksanka Elders Advisory Committee, Earthworks, Montana Environmental Information Center, Clark Fork Coalition, Rock Creek Alliance, Montana Conservation Voters, Montana Trout Unlimited, Save Our Cabinets, and Cabinet Resources Group in the Bad Actor litigation.

strip mined mountain top.
Aerial view of the Zortman and Landusky Mines in Montana, which led to water contamination on the Fort Belknap reservation. (Associated Press)

Additional Resources

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people's health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.