Fort Belknap tribe, conservation groups file to intervene in Zortman-Landusky dispute

DEQ says mine owner must complete comprehensive study, owner appeals to Board of Environmental Review

By: - September 19, 2022 4:29 pm

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

The Fort Belknap Indian Community, along with four conservation groups, have filed a motion to intervene in a dispute between the owner of a defunct gold mine and the Department of Environmental Quality.

Luke Ployhar owns the site of the former Zortman-Landusky gold mine, which also sits next to the Fort Belknap Indian Community. He has proposed a small-scale exploratory excavation there, but not before the state’s DEQ required a more comprehensive environmental impact study, which would likely result in more cost and delay for Ployhar.

On Monday, the Fort Belknap Indian Community, along with Earthworks, the Montana Environmental Information Center, Earthjustice, and Montana Trout Unlimited, joined in support of DEQ’s decision to require more assessment.

Previously, the Fort Belknap community had argued that continued water degradation and also the possibility of disruption of cultural artifacts necessitated more study. Ployhar had said that since the 125 tons of ore that would be used for testing would come from a site previously mined, no further cultural analysis was necessary.

The DEQ in its final report said, “The possible impacts to the ‘human environment,’ historical, archaeological, social, cultural resources, and cumulative impacts require further analysis … (This project) raises substantial questions regarding whether significant impacts would occur to historical, archaeological, social, and cultural resources as a result of this proposed action.”

The Zortman-Landusky site has been the focus of much litigation, stemming from when the former mine operator went bankrupt and left the state and federal government to remediate the area because of acid mine drainage. Acid mine drainage occurs when minerals are exposed to air and water creating a toxic slurry that needs to be treated before it can pollute other waterways. The gold mine used a technique called cyanide leaching that is no longer widely used in the United States because of its toxic nature.

The state DEQ, along with the Bureau of Land Management, have spent an estimated $85 million on reclaiming the site during the past two decades. And recently, the BLM determined that lands around the area managed by the Department of the Interior would be placed under a moratorium that would not allow mining for 20 additional years.

The case now heads to Montana’s Board of Environmental Review and an examiner who will determine if the tribes and groups can intervene in the issue, and then determine whether Ployhar will need to conduct the environmental impact study.

Ployhar was also issued a separate violation at the site by the DEQ, which said he was engaged in mining activities based on satellite imagery. However, the DEQ said the actions in both situations are distinct and don’t necessarily have a bearing on each other.

A spokesperson for the DEQ told the Daily Montanan on Monday that it’s not uncommon for groups, businesses or individuals to intervene in hardrock mining cases.

“There is substantial history establishing the detrimental effects created by previous mining activity in the Little Rockies,” said Jeffrey Stiffarm, President of the Fort Belknap Indian Community. “Environmental impacts are being felt to this day. The Fort Belknap Indian Community will continue to actively pursue any issues that detrimentally affect the homelands of the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine people. This includes supporting the positions of other agencies that understand the need of a comprehensive review of any proposed mining exploration.”

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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.