Commissioners express ‘dismay’ with governor for action against Hecla Mining

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The Lincoln County Commission recently wrote Gov. Steve Bullock to “express our disappointment and dismay” with a state agency’s action against Hecla Mining Co. and its CEO, Phillips S. Baker.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality alleged in late March that Hecla and Baker are in violation of the “bad actor” provision of Montana’s Metal Mine Reclamation Act. The allegation 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 — that Hecla has been attempting to develop.

“Why is our own state’s chief executive now actively working with these obstructionists to drive away a great corporate citizen, and hundreds of family wage opportunities for our county and our state?” ask commissioners Jerry Bennett, Mike Cole and Mark Peck in the letter.

The groups that approached the DEQ 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.

The “bad actor” 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.

Unlike Pegasus, the commissioners’ letter states, “(Hecla) has never walked away from a single project nor environmental responsibility as a mine operator. They represent the most proven, experienced and responsible party this state could ask for to develop the Montanore and Rock Creek ore deposits.”

The commissioners also note Hecla’s assumption of the reclamation of the Troy mine as being illustrative of its commitment to environmental responsibility.

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,” while the DEQ has stood by a legal investigation in which it “did conclude that both Baker and Hecla are in violation of the Act.”

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 were scheduled to begin 2 p.m. Thursday, April 12.

The commissioners sent their letter at about the same time fifty-six legislators likewise wrote Gov. Bullock — as well as DEQ Director Tom Livers —asking them “to consider the negative impact on Montanans this decision will have and reconsider the DEQ’s actions.”

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