The Montana Department of Environmental Quality recently notified Hecla Mining Company and its CEO, Phillips S. Baker, Jr., that they are in violation of the “bad actor” provision under the State’s mining laws. This decision by DEQ is a huge victory for Montanans, who frequently shoulder the financial burden of mine reclamation, cleanup, and perpetual treatment of water. It also suspends the permitting process, temporarily, for the Montanore and Rock Creek mines, which threaten the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness and bull trout and grizzly bears that reside there.
How did DEQ reach this decision?
Hecla CEO Phillips S. Baker served as a top official for Pegasus Gold when it declared bankruptcy in 1998. Pegasus left behind a toxic mess of contaminated soils and water at the company’s Zortman-Landustky, Beal Mountain, and Basin Creek gold mines.
When Pegasus defaulted on its reclamation obligations, the State of Montana was forced to take over responsibility for tens of millions of dollars in unpaid reclamation costs. As of January 2017, the Montana taxpayers have dolled out more than $32 million for reclamation and water treatment at Zortman-Landusky alone, where acid mine drainage from Pegasus Gold’s operations has despoiled the land, water, and sacred sites of the Fort Belknap Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Tribes, whose reservation borders the mine site.
In response to this catastrophe, in 2001 the Montana Legislature amended, and Republican Governor Judy Martz signed, a stronger and more comprehensive “bad actor” provision that prevents individuals and corporations who have defaulted on their reclamation and cleanup obligations, from being able to permit new mines unless and until they have met their previous reclamation obligations. Late last year, DEQ was alerted that Baker and his new company Hecla were disqualified from mining under the “bad actor” provisions of the Metal Mine Reclamation Act unless and until they repay the state, with interest, for the costs of reclaiming their environmental disasters.
This forward-thinking law and DEQ’s enforcement of it will help to ensure that future mines permitted by the state will not require taxpayer funds for cleanup. It just so happens that Phillips S. Baker, Jr., recently took the helm as Chairman of the Board for the National Mining Association, and recently supported a roll-back by EPA administrator Scott Pruitt of safeguards proposed by the Obama Administration that would have further protected the public and taxpayers from irresponsible miners. Hecla is also embroiled in a labor strike that has lasted for over a year at the Lucky Friday Mine, where union miners recently voted to forego an arbitration and continue to strike.
We’ll keep an eye on this developing story.