BILLINGS – Montana tribes and conservation groups sued state environmental regulators Wednesday after Gov. Greg Gianforte’s administration dropped a legal claim against a mining executive over decades of pollution from several mines.
The lawsuit was filed in state district court in Lewis and Clark County by attorneys for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the Fort Belknap Indian Community, the Montana Environmental Information Center and other groups.
Under Gianforte, the Department of Environmental Quality in July quit a legal action that sought to block Idaho-based Hecla Mining Co. and its president, Phillips Baker Jr., from involvement in two proposed silver and copper mines.
Baker was an executive with Pegasus Gold, which went bankrupt in 1998, leaving state and federal agencies with more than $50 million in cleanup costs at several mines, including the Zortman and Landusky mines near the Fort Belknap reservation.
A state ”bad actor” law enacted in the wake of the Pegasus bankruptcy punishes companies and their executives who don’t clean up mining pollution. Under the law, companies and their senior leaders can’t receive new mining permits until they’ve reimbursed the state for past cleanup costs.
DEQ director Chris Dorrington said when the state stopped pursuing the case against Hecla and Baker that it was highly unlikely the litigation would have resulted in cleanup cost reimbursement. But critics contend the decision to quit was politically motivated.
“Our community members know all too well about the lasting legacy of mining pollution,” said Andrew Werk, Jr., president of the Fort Belknap Indian Community. “This law is about protecting communities and ensuring that mining companies take responsibility for their actions, and we cannot emphasize strongly enough the importance of enforcing it.”
Dorrington said in a statement provided by a spokesperson on Wednesday that Hecla’s subsidiaries in Montana “are in compliance with the law.”
“To be clear, we agree that the impacts from mining as a result of the Pegasus failure are harmful to Montana’s environment and communities. Hecla is not Pegasus,” he said.
Dorrington added that the company’s two proposed mines in northwest Montana are not yet approved for full-scale mining and the public can express any concerns about them during the permitting process.