Montana drops “bad actor” case against Hecla Mining Co.

Montana’s Environmental Quality Department drops its lawsuit against a northern Idaho-based company seeking to develop two large silver and copper mines in northwestern Montana.

The ruling prompted conservation groups involved in the case to allege political interference from Republican Governor Greg Gianforte, who promoted the projects during the election campaign. Administration officials rejected the claim.

Coeur d’Alene-based Hecla Mining Co. filed a lawsuit in March 2018 after the DEQ attempted to label the company’s chief executive, Phillips Baker Jr., a “bad actor” under Montana’s Metal Mine Reclamation Act. The law was designed to prevent individuals and businesses who do not clean up their old mines from starting new ones.

The department – under the then government. Steve Bullock, a Democrat – sued, claiming Baker and Hecla should not get permits for the proposed mines in Lincoln and Sanders counties due to Baker’s past involvement with Pegasus Gold Corp.

Pegasus went bankrupt in 1998, abandoning three mines in the Little Rocky Mountains south of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation and leaving taxpayers at the mercy of tens of millions of dollars in reclamation and wastewater treatment efforts. continue to this day.

Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Mike Menahan awarded the state a victory in May, ruling that the DEQ has the power to apply the “bad actor” label to Baker and to other actors outside the state, although the decision did not address the substance. of the case.

WEDNESDAY, the department filed a motion to dismiss the case, citing what it called “a number of factors, including complex procedural hurdles that complicate the case and potentially risk DEQ’s ultimate goal of prevent bad actors from operating in Montana “.

DEQ director Chris Dorrington, appointed by Gianforte, added that the case seemed “very unlikely” that it would result in reimbursement for the cleanup of the old Pegasus mines by Hecla or Baker, who was vice president of Pegasus before. its bankruptcy.

“When deciding whether to pursue this matter, DEQ must consider all demands for time and demands on our resources, as well as any potential environmental benefits or consequences,” Dorrington told Daily Inter Lake in an interview. Thursday.

A coalition of tribal and environmental groups blasted the agency’s decision, saying the state wasted an opportunity to hold mining leaders to account and prevent further pollution.

“By dropping this case, DEQ is stepping away from its only real chance of defending the Montanais against millions of dollars in taxpayer dollars by Baker and Pegasus,” David Brooks, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited, said in a statement. . “The Bad Actors Act is meant to be a deterrent, not just a punishment.”

Andy Werk, president of the Indian community of Fort Belknap, said the DEQ’s decision would perpetuate “the devastating burden of environmental injustice.”

“The state of Montana must make it a priority to protect the health of Montana communities, including the Aaniiih and Nakoda tribes of the Fort Belknap Indian community, and to protect the natural resources that support all life,” he said. Werk said in a statement. “The rejection of the coercive measure by DEQ goes against this responsibility and gives priority to the mining leaders rather than the Montanais.

The groups said the state spent more than $ 50 million to clean up acidic mine waste from the soil and water at the Zortman-Landusky mine alone. Pegasus also operated the former gold mines of Beal Mountain and Basin Creek in the Lesser Rocky Mountains.

Luke Russell, spokesperson and vice chairman of Hecla, said the state’s case was “unsuccessful” because the company had no involvement in the old Pegasus mines. Hecla previously said Baker left Pegasus before going bankrupt.

“Mr. Baker is not a bad actor under Montana law,” Russell said. “His job with Pegasus over 20 years ago was the sole basis for carrying this business.”

The DEQ noted that the three mines involved in this case – the Rock Creek, Montanore and Troy mines – all comply with the Metal Mine Reclamation Act. The Troy mine is undergoing final reclamation and the two proposed mines are subject to an environmental review, engineering assessment and public comment before receiving permits, the agency said.

“These projects should therefore succeed or fail individually on their own merit through the authorization processes, where DEQ can thoroughly examine all the relevant scientific and technical details and public comments before deciding whether each should proceed,” said the department in its motion to reject. .

Derf Johnson, who heads the nonprofit Montana Environmental Information Center’s drinking water program, said the authorization process was irrelevant and the DEQ should have pursued its claim under the Bad Law. actors.

“What good are laws if they are not actually enforced? And what message does this send to currently operating mines if, through political persuasion, they can ignore and circumvent Montana’s bad actor law? Johnson said.

MONTANA IS one of the many states with bad actor statutes that allow state environmental agencies to take a company’s or individual’s environmental record into account when deciding whether to grant permits.

The Montana legislature passed the law in 1989 and expanded it in 2001 to apply to business executives. It has already been applied once, in 2008, in a case that did not involve a major project like the ones Hecla is pursuing at the Rock Creek mine near Noxon and at the Montanore mine near Libby, according to officials from the ‘State. Both projects have been underway for decades.

The two copper and silver mines would tunnel under the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness. They have been at a standstill for years as environmentalists have repeatedly sued over concerns that the mines are harming the area’s rivers and wildlife, including bull trout and grizzly bears.

During a July 2020 campaign event at Hecla’s offices in Libby, Gianforte called the DEQ and the state’s natural resources and conservation department “project prevention departments,” criticizing the weather. that it took to get permits for the Rock Creek and Montanore mines, the Montana Free Press reported. (State and federal agencies have issued permits for the mines, but they have been successfully challenged in court on several occasions.)

“I don’t think we should approve all the permits, but we should be able to get a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in less than 35 years,” Gianforte said at the time.

Johnson, of the Montana Environmental Information Center, said: “Clearly this is a very political decision. Clearly this is a policy change on the part of the governor’s office.

Dorrington, the director of DEQ, and Gianforte spokeswoman Brooke Stroyke, said the governor had not advocated for the prosecution to be withdrawn.

“As with matters relating to the protection of the Montana environment and Montana taxpayers, the governor has assigned and empowered DEQ to take whatever action the agency considers most appropriate,” Stroyke said in an email. .

Dorrington reiterated this point, almost verbatim, during Thursday’s phone call.

“The governor relied on us to make these decisions,” he added.

While environmentalists fear the proposed mines will cause permanent damage to the federally protected nature of the Cabinet Mountains, mining executives note that copper and silver are needed for the production of electric vehicles, wind turbines and other components of an environmentally friendly economy.

“We look forward to moving these projects forward,” said Russell, spokesperson for Hecla. “They are important for clean energy, they can be done responsibly, and they will have a huge economic impact on Northwest Montana.”

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