Residents grill DEQ for possible mining permit at Zortman Landusky

Fort Belknap President: ‘How many people will get sick because of this? How many have already died?’

By: - January 4, 2022 9:44 pm

Landusky water treatment facility shown in 2004 (Courtesy Bureau of Land Managment).

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality wanted public comment on a small mining exploration permit at the site of one of the state’s worst environmental disasters near Zortman.

It got its wish and then some as tribal members from nearby Fort Belknap Indian Community and environmental advocates sharply criticized the plan, questioning the analysis, accusing the department of failing to protect indigenous people while calling out the Bureau of Land Management for allowing a two-day lapse in paperwork that allowed the new claims to be staked.

The proposal by Luke Ployhar is one of three that has recently been proposed for exploration and one of two that are currently pending before the DEQ. The exploration would create a trench, 25 feet long by 10 feet wide by 25 feet deep, to extract approximately 125 tons of rock for analysis. The land is adjacent to the old mine site, which has already cost more than $80 million to state and federal taxpayers for remediation of acid mine drainage from the now-bankrupt Pegasus Mining company, which used cyanide leaching to extract gold from the former mining site. However, the Canadian-based company went bankrupt before it finished and left extensive mining degradation, leaving the state and federal government to handle the mess.

Meanwhile, Pegasus’ former chief financial officer is currently a part of a mining proposal in the Cabinet Mountains, and residents and groups have sued the state to enforce its “bad actor” laws against Phillips Baker, who was part of the failed Zortman Landusky operation.

As part of its process, the DEQ is taking public comment through Jan. 11 about the proposal and answered questions about its work at the Zortman Landusky site.

To find out more about the mining exploration by Luke Ployhar near the Zortman Landusky complex, or to submit a public comment please visit:

https://deq.mt.gov/News/publiccomment-folder/news-article1

The public comment session, which lasted for three hours, featured only one speaker in favor of the proposal and several dozen who spoke out against it. The Montana DEQ will review the comments and respond to questions before issuing a final decision.

Newly elected Fort Belknap Indian Community President Jeffrey “Jeff” Stiffarm said the tribal government opposes the new exploration permit and chastised the DEQ for not consulting with officials sooner.

“The DEQ and Luke Ployhar are more concerned about money than people’s lives, but we’re more concerned about the lives. We have to live here and mining is not part of a healthy environment,” said Stiffarm, opening the public comment portion of the meeting.

Whitney Bausch, the leader of the project for the DEQ, explained during the meeting that Ployhar’s proposal would only allow a small portion of ore to be removed, taking no more than 10 days, and reclamation plus a bond would be required.  She stated that no water would be affected.

“Exploration is not mining,” she said.

If a full-scale mining operation were to proceed, it would require an entirely new comprehensive mining analysis with different permitting and bonding, she said.

However, residents pushed back, saying exploration is the beginning of full-scale mining.

“This is the first phase, an exploration permit,” said Fort Belknap Tribal Council Member Steve Fox. “What concerns me is where it leads if it’s successful. It’ll lead to full-scale mining and these tribes have not fared well with that. It’s private land now, but they took it when gold was discovered. And the mining there sets a bad precedent when the State of Montana was left holding the bag and everyone who lives close to it will have to deal with the impacts of the pollution.”

Shelby DeMars, who represented oil, gas and mineral counties in Montana, said her group is supportive of the proposal, and “hopefully it would lead to mining.”

“Since Pegasus, the permitting process has come a long way,” DeMars said. “We have some of the most strict air and water quality standards, more stringent than federal regulations.”

Other members faulted the DEQ for not properly communicating with Fort Belknap tribal officials, saying they originally heard of Ployhar’s interest through the newspaper. Tribal officials chastised the DEQ for not reaching out to the tribal office of cultural resources to ensure that no archaeological resources were being damaged and said that the state department had failed to research the site properly.

“The Fort Belknap opposes this new mining permit. First, you didn’t consult the tribe, and then only after we filed suit to say that you weren’t following your own laws,” Stiffarm said. “What else are you hiding? Maybe it was you who informed Mr. Ployhar (of the site protection lapse). You don’t live here and you haven’t been to the (ceremonial) lands. These are our churches, those lands. How many people will get sick because of this? How many have already died?”

Dominic Messerly, a tribal council member, said he questioned the legality of the land ownership because the original land patent and transfer, dating back to the 1890s has never been found, calling into question its legitimacy.

He also said that the DEQ cannot have a credible assessment without consulting the tribes or ensuring that there are no archaeological or cultural issues on the property, which is private and owned by Ployhar.

Derf Johnson, a staff attorney with the Montana Environmental Information Center, said he was shocked that the DEQ was even considering the permit.

“I was up there and toured the site. I don’t think anybody who sees the site up close and the damage would be comfortable with new mining. You are the last line of defense,” Johnson said addressing the DEQ. “The reality is that mining exploration leads to mining operations. To ignore that is to ignore what the (Montana) Constitution requires, which is to evaluate the potential impacts.”

David Brewer, a retired veterinarian from Havre, urged the department to slow down and take more time to research and communicate.

“The word that pops into my head is ‘respect,’” Brewer said. “Fort Belknap has not been respected in the process.”

Lorraine Brockie held on for nearly three hours of comment before sharing her story. She told of her sister and her going up three or four times a week into the nearby mountains, having that constant connection with the land.

“We go up to look for herbs for medicine and we send them all over the U.S. to support our people because that’s our way of life. We believe in it,” Brockie said.

John Hawley, also a member of the Fort Belknap Indian Community, was shocked that more Montanans weren’t outraged by the mining proposal.

“I’m amazed not more taxpayers are paying attention to this because it’s their money up there. I have seen the orange water,” Hawley said. “Some people say mining is king, but really, it’s agriculture because people have to eat. What happens to that water when it flows into the fields?

“You people at the DEQ totally dropped the ball. You didn’t protect us.”

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.

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