DEQ pauses Zortman Landusky project, but mine owner may move forward with larger project

By: - February 4, 2022 8:25 am

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

On Thursday, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality announced that it would require a small mining operation to undergo more historical and environmental assessment before taking as much as a 125 tons of rock for metallurgic sampling.

The new requirement came after the nearby Fort Belknap Indian Community raised concerns about the site’s archaeological and spiritual significance, and that community was joined by support from the Fort Peck Indian Community as well as the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes.

However, the mine’s owner, Luke Ployhar, said that further analysis could easily cost upwards of $200,000, and the DEQ has already approved a permit for removing as many as 10,000 tons of rocks without such a study, so he will likely pursue the previously approved project even though it could be more disruptive than the smaller, limited 10-day project that now has more requirements.

The mining permits centers on private land that was previously part of the Pegasus gold mine that went bankrupt in Zortman Landusky in Phillips County. It was the site of extensive remediation after acid mine drainage caused environmental damage that led to nearly $30 million being spent during the course of two decades, with mining experts saying the contamination is likely permanent.

Two permits, same owner

Ployhar purchased the land after Pegasus went bankrupt, outbidding the nearby Fort Belknap Indian Community. For years, he’s held the land, but when a lapse in federal paperwork caused a mining moratorium to expire, he filed new claims on the site.

One of those claims was part of a larger, more extensive plan to remove more than 10,000 tons of rock for testing and exploration. That original project was approved by the DEQ, but hasn’t been completed because Ployhar has not yet submitted the bond to begin the work.

However, he later scaled back the project to only remove 125 tons of rock in a trench not much bigger than a house’s foundation (35 feet long, 10 feet wide by 25 feet deep). A draft environmental analysis performed by the DEQ didn’t raise any significant issues with the exploration late in 2021. During a contentious public meeting, though, tribal members and others spoke against the project, and the Fort Belknap Indian Community accused state officials of not consulting them and discounting the historical, archaeological and spiritual significance of the land.

In the final assessment, prepared after the meeting, the department said that after further consultation with the tribal officials, including the tribal historical preservation officer, it determined that more analysis was likely needed, and that cost would be borne by Ployhar if he wanted to complete the smaller project.

Ployhar told the Daily Montanan that the issue raises serious questions about private property rights, and said that a cultural and archaeological assessment has already been completed on the land prior to the Pegasus mine. He also said the tribe repeatedly asked Pegasus to develop mining on tribal lands so that it could reap the financial benefits of gold mining. He suspects the tribes are trying to stymie his plans so that they can capitalize on the proven gold reserves.

‘We must follow the law’

The DEQ defended its revised assessment, saying the changed outcome proves the public process works. In other words, the public input was incorporated to the final decision.

“Comments on the draft environmental assessment presented DEQ with conflicting evidence from credible and potentially expert sources,” the department said. “This evidence raises substantial questions regarding whether significant impacts could occur to historical, archaeological, social and cultural resources as a result of the proposed actions.”

Michael Black Wolf, the Fort Belknap Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, weighed in on the proposed project, as did cultural resource officers from Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

“Most, if not all, mountain tops/peaks are extremely important to the tribes (Gros Ventre and Assiniboine) both culturally and spiritually,” Black Wolf wrote. “I appeal to your fundamental humanity and ask that you respect the spirituality and cultural beliefs of the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes and weigh the immeasurable and irreparable impacts this project will have on the people and landscape.”

The DEQ also sourced an ethnographic study of the Little Rocky Mountains that performed in conjunction with the state office of historic preservation.

“From the perspective of those that follow traditional ways, there is no clear-cut division between the physical characteristics of the environment and the spiritual characteristics of the environment,” the research said. “Tribal members usually do not believe that once an area is destroyed our disturbed, the culturally significant sites or areas within the disturbed or destroyed areas are diminished in value or importance. For the Nakoda (Assiniboine) and Aaniiih (Gros Ventre) the fact that the Zortman-Landusky mine disturbance exists does not diminish the spiritual importance of the Little Rocky Mountains, but rather emphasizes the need to continue to protect and heal this sacred space.”

DEQ Director Chris Dorrington signed the final environmental assessment, which will require further investigation if Ployhar and the mining were to move forward.

“This was the right decision for this site. DEQ received comments from three Tribal Historic Preservation officers, all of whom indicated potential serious impacts to cultural resources,” Dorrington said. “When public comments uncover substantive issues that were not addressed in our initial review, we must do our due diligence and follow the law.”

The following is a statement Luke Ployhar provided to the Daily Montana explaining his concerns and position:

We were notified by the DEQ yesterday that they plan on requiring an EIS due to what they call “potential serious impacts to the cultural resources for the Nakoda and Aaniiih people.” When speaking with the DEQ, I inquired as to the general costs of an EIS for our permit. They replied in the past that they have costed several hundreds of thousands of dollars. Keep in mind that our permit and any interests we have in exploration are on my own private property and would involve a 35-foot trench. Yet, the DEQ is requesting a several hundred thousand dollar Environment Impact Study? This is clearly government abuse and overreach. Keep in mind I purchased this property more than 20 years ago and have allowed the state full access to water treatment and past reclamation completely. The DEQ is stating that the tribes are concerned about cultural heritage sites and protecting them. Multiple studies have been done in the past for Pegasus Mining and it was determined that no significant cultural sites exist where we will be doing our work. I will be providing all documents to the state and informational outlets. In addition, I will be releasing the Pegasus tribal exploration plan documents that outline the tribes’ desire for Pegasus Mining to explore tribal lands on the reservation for gold and minerals for exploitation. There was a drill program done and extensive research. Make no mistake, the tribes are interested in this area due to its significant economic possibilities and not cultural heritage. Any and all claims by the Tribes of bad water extending onto their lands is a blatant falsehood. The water treatment facilities put in place by Pegasus Mining are able to capture and contain and process any historical elevated acidic waters. Also, acidic water that is produced by the mountains was there long before mining ever started. It was a main factor in old time prospectors being able to locate mineralized vein structures that naturally produce “acid rock drainage.” In addition, there is also a common falsehood being propagated that it’s the Montana taxpayers footing the bill for water treatment. The money comes from a tax on other mining that takes place in Montana, not the general population tax.

In response to the DEQ’s unjustified decision to burden us with an absurd EIS responsibility, we will move back to our original permitted area to extract the 10,000 tons instead of the 750 at the new location. We will also appeal this decision based upon the requirements presented for normal exploration permits in the state. We will also be requesting an independent water quality study be done at both the Zortman and Landusky locations. It is our understanding that there is virtually little to no water contamination coming from old mining activities on the Zortman side and mild amounts depending on weather/water events on the Landusky side. The same companies that get the contracts for water treatment from the DEQ are the same ones engineering a perpetual cycle of contamination.

In addition to the current exploration that we are proposing at the sites, it is our belief that our long-term plan would benefit all parties involved. If we prove that mining is still viable in the Little Rocky Mountians — with correct planning and design we would be able to remediate water issues for the future as well as potentially contribute to actually rebuilding the current open pits back to their original mountain shapes. This would, I believe absolutely thrill the Tribes and environmental agencies that are encouraging the tribes to prevent mining. If they were willing to listen they might find that great good could be done to that area as well as produce economic benefit for the county, towns, and tribes of the area. I will be curious to see if anyone is interested in hearing what we would like to do…

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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.