BLM withdraws more than 2,600 acres of public land from mining in Zortman-Landusky

BLM announces it will also consider nearly 1,000 more acres for withdrawal

By: - September 12, 2022 5:12 pm

A June 2021 site inspection of a portion of the Landusky Mine reclamation area shows the August Pit with Gold Bug Butte in the background. The withdrawal established by the Sept. 9, 2022, Public Land Order will protect the Zortman-Landusky Mine area, and facilitate reclamation and stabilization of the site. (Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management)

The Bureau of Land Management announced that it will be removing federal land from mining that had previously been the site of decades of remediation and reclamation.

On Monday, the BLM announced that it had withdrawn more than 2,600 acres of land in the Zortman-Landusky mining complex in Phillips County, and also that it was beginning the process of protecting another 912 acres at the request of the Fort Belknap Indian Community. That additional land for withdrawal will be considered through a separate process since it’s in addition to the land already slated for protection.

However, Gina Baltrusch of the BLM Malta Field Office told the Daily Montanan that during the review period, land use, including mining activities, will be suspended until the Secretary of the Department of the Interior can make a decision.

The land-use moratorium announced by the BLM for federal land will last for 20 years.

The 2,600 acres roughly correspond to the same tract of land the federal BLM had previously removed from mining consideration because of efforts to clean up and reclaim land impacted from cyanide treatment areas as well as exposed land that had contributed to acid mine drainage, a toxic chemical reaction that takes place when air or water mix with exposed minerals to create pollution.

The Zortman-Landusky site has also been the site of recent controversy after the current mine owner, Luke Ployhar, filed permits with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to begin limited mining exploration at the site after the BLM’s protection lapsed. Since then, Ployhar has received a permit to begin a very small scale mining exploration and has been fined for allegedly exploring other parts of the land without a permit.

Monday’s order provides a 20-year window in which the BLM will prevent new mining activities on federal land, and it allows the agency time to monitor the ongoing reclamation of the land  and water, which some experts have said will be a near-perpetual challenge at the site.

More than $83 million in reclamation bonds have been used since the former mine owner/operator abandoned the mines in 1998 after filing for bankruptcy.

“It is anticipated that water treatment will continue indefinitely, with continued funding needed for ongoing operation and monitoring activities,” a news release said. “The BLM estimates that approximately $2.2 million per year will be needed for water treatment into the foreseeable future.”

Moira Davin, a spokeswoman for the Montana DEQ, said that the BLM’s decision won’t necessarily change any currently permitted activity on the site, but that Ployhar can always exercise his option to apply for a mining permit.

Ployhar told the Daily Montanan on Monday that any mining done on the site would likely be done on private property and that the BLM decision doesn’t change that.

“I have discussed in the past that we are interested in mining located on our private property. It is our belief that not only would this mining be economically beneficial to the economy of this area but would also benefit the ongoing water treatment by removing many of the acid generating materials that contain the mineralization,” Ployhar said. “It is our hope to develop a win/win strategy not only for ourselves but for the community that live in this area economically with jobs and services as well as environmentally by potentially helping to mitigate the historical damage of past mining.”

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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.