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Tribes, conservation groups sue state for ending 'bad actor' lawsuit

by AMANDA EGGERT
| August 6, 2021 7:00 AM

The Fort Belknap Indian Community and a coalition of environmental nonprofit groups said this week they plan to sue the Montana Department of Environmental Quality for failing to uphold its duties under the Metal Mine Reclamation Act.

In a filing Aug. 2 in Lewis and Clark County District Court, the groups said they were "disappointed" by the DEQ's recent decision not to label Hecla Mining Co. President Phillips Baker Jr. a "bad actor" for failing to clean up the Zortman-Landusky gold mine when he served as vice president of Pegasus Gold. Pegasus filed for bankruptcy in 1998, leaving the state with an acid mine drainage clean-up effort that's expected to continue for generations.

The agency's decision to dismiss the lawsuit seeking to designate Hecla and Baker as "bad actors" means that Hecla won't have to reimburse the state for tens of millions of dollars it's spent cleaning up the Zortman-Landusky Mine in north-central Montana before it can move forward with two proposed silver and copper mines in northwest Montana.

In 2015, Hecla bought the Rock Creek and Montanore mines south of Libby with the hope of extracting silver and copper from what's believed to be one of the largest untapped deposits of either metal in the world. But the mines have been stalled by a series of lawsuits for decades. In 2018, Montana sought to bar Hecla and Baker from pursuing new mining permits in the state until they cleaned up former mining projects, including the Zortman-Landusky Mine. That action was taken under the administration of former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.

Gov. Greg Gianforte, a Republican who took office in January, has taken a different approach to the beleaguered project. Last July, Gianforte held a campaign event at Hecla's Libby office; a year later Gianforte's DEQ announced that it would dismiss the lawsuit against Hecla and Baker.

"After careful analysis, DEQ has decided not to pursue the case further," the agency said in a press release July 14. It cited "a number of factors including complex, procedural hurdles that complicate the case and potentially risk DEQ's ultimate goal of preventing bad actors from operating in Montana" in its decision.

In its motion to dismiss the case against Hecla and Baker, the agency argued that it would rather address the problem of bad actors through legislative, rather than judicial, channels.

The Fort Belknap Indian Community and five environmental groups that intervened in the lawsuit said the DEQ is wrong not to "enforce Montana law and safeguard the interests of the people of Montana." The groups said although they cannot prevent the department from seeking dismissal of the lawsuit, they do plan to initiate legal action against the agency over its failure to enforce the "bad actor" provision in the Metal Mine Reclamation Act.

"DEQ has done a one-eighty on enforcing the bad actor law," said Rock Creek Alliance Executive Director Mary Costello in a press release about the groups' decision to challenge DEQ's handling of the situation. "They are allowing political favors to the mining industry to undermine the law and, in doing so, are abdicating their responsibility to protect Montana taxpayers from current and future liabilities."

"The state of Montana alone has contributed more than $32 million into this effort and more will be needed since the cleanup costs will be in perpetuity," Fort Belknap Indian Community President Andrew Werk Jr., said in the press release. "It is DEQ and the Gianforte administration's responsibility to uphold the law and not allow Hecla Mining and Baker to profit from new mines while the Fort Belknap Indian Community and other Montana communities continue to struggle with ongoing mining pollution. Their decision to forego enforcement of the law is wrong, plain and simple."

Hecla and the DEQ didn't immediately respond to the Montana Free Press' requests for comment Tuesday afternoon.