Hecla Mining files complaint against DEQ in district court

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Hecla Mining Company has filed a Complaint for Declaratory Judgment and Injunctive Relief against the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and its director, following that agency’s decision that the mining company and its CEO are in violation of Montana’s Metal Mine Reclamation Act. At stake are permits for two mines the company seeks to develop near Libby.

“The Montana Department of Environmental Quality has misinterpreted the statue and Hecla will vigorously challenge the decision,” Luke Russell, Hecla’s vice president of external affairs, said via news release.

The complaint was filed Friday, March 23 in Montana 19th Judicial District Court in Libby.

The DEQ notified Hecla of its determination on Tuesday, stating that the company and its CEO, Phillips S. Baker, were in violation of the act’s “bad actor” provision.

The provision “prohibits a person from conducting mining or exploration activities in Montana if that person was a principal or controlling member of a business entity for which DEQ received bond proceeds,” DEQ Director Tom Livers said in a statement provided Thursday to The Western News.

Baker previously was vice president and chief financial officer of Pegasus Gold Incorporated, whose Zortman-Landusky, Basin Creek and Beal Mountain mines polluted the environment. Pegasus eventually filed for bankruptcy, leaving the state responsible for cleanup.

“(Pegasus Gold’s) failure to reclaim the sites triggered the release of bond proceeds,” Livers stated, adding that the state has spent “additional tens of millions of public funds” to cover the reclamation costs.

Hecla may also face enforcement action, according to Livers’ statement, because it employs Baker “to further its mining and exploration activities in Montana knowing his previous positions at Pegasus.”

“Requiring one company to pay for reclamation responsibilities of another, unrelated company, is a clear misapplication of the law,” Russell states in the news release, calling it “a huge stretch to suggest that Hecla ... is now required to pay for reclamation of a mine conducted by another totally unrelated company.”

Russell also contends that Baker “was not the controlling entity at Pegasus” and is not the applicant for the mining permits Hecla seeks for the Montanore mine near Libby and Rock Creek mine near Noxon.

“We reached our decision based on careful deliberation of the legal issues,” Liver said in a statement released Friday afternoon. “We stand by it and are prepared to defend it.”

The DEQ decision follows a request a handful of conservation groups made late last October for the DEQ to suspend state permits for the two mines. The groups include the Clark Fork Coalition, Earthworks, Montana Environmental Information Center, Rock Creek Alliance and Save Our Cabinets, which are represented by the law firm Earthjustice.

“DEQ got the law right in holding Hecla and Phillip Baker accountable under Montana’s ‘bad actor’ provisions,” according to a statement provided Friday by Aurora Janke, an associate attorney with Earthjustice. “We are still reviewing the complaint, but we intend to defend DEQ’s action.”

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