56 legislators urge state to drop action against Hecla Mining Co.

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Fifty-six legislators have made clear how they feel about a state agency’s action against a company and its leader trying to develop two mines near Libby.

The action “appears to be another thinly veiled ploy of obstructionist groups that desire nothing more than to kill Montana’s economy and thwart responsible mineral extraction,” wrote Rep. Steve Gunderson of Libby in a letter dated April 4 and addressed to Gov. Steve Bullock and Tom Livers, director of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

The letter is co-signed by 34 of Gunderson’s colleagues in the House and 21 in the senate.

The legislators are contesting the DEQ’s allegation in late March that Hecla Mining Company and its president and CEO, Phillips S. Baker, are in violation of the “bad actor” provision of Montana’s Metal Mine Reclamation Act.

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 has said.

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 tens of millions of dollars of ongoing cleanup costs.

The DEQ decision followed a request a handful of conservation groups made late last October for the DEQ to suspend state permits for the two mines — Montanore near Libby and Rock Creek near Noxon. 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.

Earthjustice previously told The Western News that “DEQ got the law right in holding Hecla and Phillip Baker accountable under Montana’s ‘bad actor’ provisions.”

“The decision ... to classify Mr. Baker of Hecla Mining Company as a ‘bad actor’ is out of step with the intentions of the law,” Gunderson wrote. “Mr. Baker was not a decision maker at the previous company when concerns surfaced. The company he now heads, Hecla Mining, is one of the ‘Best Actors’ in the industry and is an award winning environmental steward.”

Gunderson also noted the importance of the jobs the two mines “will bring to this impoverished region of Montana.”

Gunderson concluded his letter by asking Gov. Bullock “to consider the negative impact on Montanans this decision will have and reconsider the DEQ’s actions.”

According to a statement provided Monday to The Western News by DEQ spokesperson Kristi Ponozzo, “DEQ recognizes that Hecla’s track record has earned the company a favorable reputation. However, DEQ will act in accordance with the laws of the State of Montana.”

Ponozzo also noted that, though “DEQ did not agree with all the legal arguments presented by EarthJustice” last October, “Through our subsequent legal investigation we did conclude that both Baker and Hecla are in violation of the Act.”

“Our legal council had several conversations with Hecla’s legal representatives during our investigation and DEQ kept the Governor’s Office apprised of our deliberations,” Ponozzo wrote.

The Governor’s Office did not respond by press time Monday to a request for comment.

The DEQ gave Hecla Mining Company and Baker 30 days to comply from the March 20 notification of the alleged violation. According to the DEQ, Hecla and Baker can do one of two things to comply with the act — pay all necessary costs the DEQ incurs in reclaiming the Zortman-Landusky, Basin Creek and Beal Mountain Mine Sites, or “demonstrate that Baker is no longer mining or conducting exploration activities in Montana.”

On March 23, Hecla Mining Company filed a Complaint for Declaratory Judgment and Injunctive Relief in Montana 19th Judicial Court in Libby against the Department of Environmental Quality and Livers. Hecla Mining Company also sought a temporary restraining order, which court documents show was denied, and a motion to show cause, hearings for which are scheduled to begin 2 p.m. Thursday, April 12.

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