(Editor’s note: The story and headline were updated 12:52 p.m. Aug. 3 to clarify that some, not all, reclamation work was stopped pending the court hearing.)
Hecla Mining Company has paused some reclamation work at Troy Mine while it awaits the next step in its legal fight with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
Despite the move, Hecla remains “fully committed” both to meeting its reclamation obligations at the mine and to developing two new mines in the Libby area, Luke Russell, Hecla vice president of external affairs, said Thursday.
The state has alleged that Hecla CEO Phillips S. Baker Jr. bears responsibility under Montana’s “bad actor law” for ongoing pollution at several mines owned by his former employer, Pegasus Mining.
The state has paid more than $35 million for cleanup at those sites after Pegasus went bankrupt. Officials want that money reimbursed before Hecla moves forward with plans for Rock Creek and Montanore mines near Libby.
Hecla argues that neither the company nor Baker is responsible for pollution left behind by Pegasus. The only connection between Hecla and Pegasus is Baker, who served as chief financial officer at Pegasus in the run up to its 1998 bankruptcy.
“We don’t think the state is interpreting the statute correctly,” Russell said.
The state has said that if a court finds Baker is in violation of the “bad actor” provision of Montana’s Metal Mine Reclamation Act, it might suspend Hecla’s permits for Rock Creek and Montanore mines.
Because the reclamation work at Troy Mine is done under the same type of permit Hecla seeks for the other two mines, “it’s unclear what the legal status is of those permits until the bad actor situation is resolved,” Russell said.
Hecla has filed for a preliminary injunction to clarify the permits’ status, Russell said, and a hearing on the matter in 1st District Court in Helena is scheduled for Sept. 17.
Meanwhile, he said the uncertainty was behind the company’s decision to halt this year’s reclamation work today, about two months sooner than planned.
The decision puts out of work a contract crew of 25 to 30 people that had been covering 303 acres of tailings with topsoil. Russell said stopping the work early this year “may have a bit of an impact” on the reclamation schedule, “but not significant.”
The work is expected to take another two to three years. Hecla so far has spent two years and $6 million dollars on reclamation, Russell said.
While awaiting the court’s decision, a three-person crew will continue to maintain the Troy Mine site and do the monitoring and reporting necessary to comply with permitting obligations, Russell said.
“Their job is unchanged,” he said, adding that the reclamation manager has been sent to work on a new Hecla site in Nevada for the remainder of the year.
DEQ Director Tom Livers told the Associated Press in an email that the lawsuit against Baker is unrelated to Hecla’s work at Troy.
“Hecla has a clear legal obligation to complete reclamation at this site in a timely manner regardless of pending legal action,” Livers wrote. “Despite this, they’ve chosen to make this decision (suspend work) and are tying it to the lawsuit against Baker.”
Russell said that in Hecla’s view, the DEQ’s actions “affects them all.”
According to the Associated Press, the state holds a $24.7 million reclamation bond to ensure work at the Troy site is completed.
Bruce Vincent, a Libby area resident who consults for Hecla, noted in an email that the DEQ “has indicated that they see Hecla as a ‘good partner’ in the work they are doing at Troy and on the permitting for the other projects.”
“And yet they have taken a position that questions whether or not we will have the oldest mining company in North America welcomed to operate in Montana,” he wrote.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.