Montana has a long and storied history of mining. Mining has brought great riches and economic progress to our state; it can be argued mining built this state and minerals from Montana fueled the development of our nation. It also left a legacy of pollution and cleanup we’re still addressing today.
The Montana Department of Environmental Quality is entrusted with implementing and enforcing environmental laws enacted by the Legislature, one of those being the Metal Mines Reclamation Act. Similar to other states, Montana requires environmentally responsible design, operation and reclamation of mine sites. As head of DEQ, I feel it is important to speak directly to some of the concerns that have been raised about our enforcement of the “bad actor” provision of the Metal Mines Act.
The so-called “bad actor” provision became law in 1989 and was revised in the aftermath of the Pegasus Gold bankruptcy, which left Montana with huge unmet reclamation obligations at Zortman-Landusky, Beal Mountain, and Basin Creek mine sites. Though Pegasus Gold reaped a substantial profit from these mines before abandoning them and declaring bankruptcy, the unmet reclamation costs and ongoing water treatment expenses have been, and continue to be, paid by public funds from the State of Montana and the federal government. Some cleanup expenses, like water treatment, will cost millions of dollars every year in perpetuity.
During the years that Pegasus Gold operated these mines, it repeatedly identified Phillips S. Baker as one of its principals. Mr. Baker now works for a different company, Hecla Mining. The Montana Metal Mines Act specifically prevents the principals of “bad actor” mining companies from returning to our state to mine, and to direct mining, without first squaring up on unmet costs.
Up until this week’s suspension of reclamation work at the Troy mine, DEQ’s only concern with Hecla has been its employment of Mr. Baker due to his standing under the Metal Mines Act. We have taken no action to suspend or revoke permits tied to Hecla’s proposed developments at the Rock Creek and Montanore sites. In fact, DEQ approved renewal of the exploration licenses for each in November 2017 and May 2018, respectively. DEQ and Hecla worked together in 2017 and through the spring of 2018 to amend the reclamation plan for Troy to enable summer 2018 construction. Hecla felt this was necessary to meet its legal deadline of completing reclamation by June of 2021. DEQ’s action against Mr. Baker should have no impact on reclamation operations at Troy. When Hecla purchased Revett Mining Inc., it knowingly assumed the obligation for reclaiming the Troy Mine. Despite this, Hecla has recently chosen a course of action that puts in jeopardy the company’s ability to meet reclamation deadlines and are tying this decision to DEQ’s lawsuit against Mr. Baker. Because of Montana’s history with companies such as Pegasus, DEQ is concerned when a company takes action, even temporarily, to step away from its legal obligation to reclaim a mine site.
Hecla and others maintain DEQ is misapplying a well-intentioned law. After spending considerable time analyzing this, I disagree with that characterization. Regardless, the way to resolve a dispute of this importance, where opposing views are strongly held, is in court. We want to resolve this and move forward. DEQ has proposed to Hecla that we mutually forgo procedural wrangling and ask the court to move straight to resolving the primary issue: Does the bad actor provision bar Mr. Baker from mining in Montana? Once the court makes a determination on this issue, it will be up to Hecla and DEQ to pursue a course of action in line with that ruling. We have had no response from either the company or Mr. Baker on our request to expedite this. In the interim, DEQ has been unequivocally clear that Hecla may proceed with the development and exploration work planned for Rock Creek and Montanore and with reclamation work at Troy.
DEQ recognizes that Hecla’s track record of mine operations and reclamation has earned the company a favorable reputation for commitments to safety and to minimizing environmental impacts from mining. Notwithstanding this reputation, DEQ has an obligation to enforce Montana law to protect the interests of Montana’s citizens.
Tom Livers is director of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.