Environmental groups, tribes sue DEQ for lack of ‘bad actor’ enforcement against mining company

By: - November 11, 2021 6:20 pm

Hard rock mining illustration (Photo via PxHere | Creative Commons).

A coalition of Montana environmental groups and Indian tribes are suing the state for not enforcing the “bad actor” provision of the law against the former head of Pegasus Gold mining company, who is proposing two new large-scale mining projects in the state that the groups say would devastate areas of cultural significance to the Kootenai Tribe.

Phillips Baker is at the center of the suit, one of the former leaders of Pegasus Gold Incorporated, which operated multiple cyanide heap-leach gold mines in the 1990s, including the Zortman-Landusky Basin Creek and Beal Mountain mines. When the group filed for bankruptcy in 1998, it left behind more than $80 million in reclamation liability and water treatment obligations, the suit claims.

Now, Baker is back in Montana as the president and chief executive officer of Hecla Mining Company. The company is pursuing two large-scale hard rock mining projects adjacent to and beneath the Cabinet Mountains. The suit says the projects “threaten to destroy an area of unparalleled ecological integrity and of deep cultural significance to the Kootenai Tribe.”

On Wednesday morning, the executive director of the Montana Environmental Information Center delivered a petition with more than 3,000 signatures to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office asking him to enforce the “bad actor” law.

The bad actor provision is part of Montana’s Metal Mine Reclamation Act. It is meant to bar corporations with outstanding obligations from embarking on new mining operations without paying cleanup costs of past mines.

The defendants in the suit are the Department of Environmental Equality and its director, Chris Dorrington.

“Director Dorrington and DEQ’s failure to enforce the bad actor law represents an abrupt and unjustified agency reversal,” the suit reads.

In 2017, the DEQ issued violation letters to Hecla and Baker saying they were violating the bad actor provision. In response, Hecla sued the DEQ, but two district courts dismissed the case. However, after Gianforte appointed Dorrington to direct the DEQ, the department dismissed the bad actor claims against Hecla and Baker, saying it would cost too much “time and money” to pursue, according to the suit.

“Director Dorrington and DEQ’s abdication of responsibility further forces members of the Fort Belknap Tribes to disproportionately bear the burden of Baker’s disastrous legacy at the Zortman and Landusky sites, while allowing Hecla and Baker to continue to profit on additional mining in the state,” the suit reads.

Plaintiffs in the suit include Ksanka Elders Advisory Committee, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation, Fort Belknap Indian Community, Earthworks, Montana Environmental Information Center, Clark Fork Coalition, Rock Creek Alliance, Montana Trout Unlimited, Montana Conservation Voters Education Fund, Save our Cabinets and Cabinet Resource Group.

The groups are asking a Lewis and Clark County District Judge to rule Dorrington and the DEQ have violated their enforcement obligations under the Metal Mine Reclamation Act and issue a writ directing DEQ to enforce the bad actor provision against Hecla and Baker, preventing them from mining until they settle their outstanding obligations and cleanup costs.

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Keith Schubert
Keith Schubert

Keith Schubert was born and raised in Wisconsin and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2019. He has worked at the St.Paul Pioneer Press, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and most recently, the Asbury Park Press, covering everything from local craft fairs to crime and courts to municipal government to the Minnesota state legislature. In his free time, he enjoys cheering on Wisconsin sports teams and exploring small businesses. Keith is no longer a reporter with the Daily Montanan.