Halt sought to Hecla mining permits

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Cliff Lake in the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, which would be tunneled beneath in order to mine copper and silver. (Photo courtesy RANDY BEACHAM/CLARK FORK COALITION)

SANDPOINT — A coalition of conservation groups are calling on the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to suspend state permits for Hecla Mining Co. projects in northwestern Montana.

The groups, which include the Rock Creek Alliance, contend the company should not be allowed to develop the Rock Creek and Montanore projects because the company’s CEO helmed other projects for another company which forced the state and federal government to bear the burden of tens of millions of dollars in unpaid reclamation costs.

“Montanans don’t want another toxic mining legacy,” Mary Crowe Costello of the Rock Creek Alliance and Save Our Cabinets said in a statement on Monday. “The Rock Creek and Montanore mines, which are planned in the heart of a spectacular and ecologically vital wilderness, must comply with the laws that protect Montana’s water, taxpayers and the communities that are most at risk from mining.”

The groups, which also include Earthjustice, the Clark Fork Coalition and the Montana Environmental Information Center, said Hecla’s permits should be suspended under Montana’s “bad actors” provision, which prevents mine operators from commencing with new projects until they have completed reclamation of past mining projects.

Hecla officials said they were reviewing the allegations raised against former Pegasus Gold Inc. vice president and CFO and current Hecla CEO and President Phillips Baker Jr. However, the company said the conservation groups have misconstrued the statute as it relates to Baker and Hecla, which has no relationship to the mining projects cited by the conservation groups.

“This action continues efforts by these serial litigants to block responsible mineral development and economic opportunity for northwest Montana,” Luke Russell, VP of Hecla’s external affairs said on Monday.

The conservation groups assert that Pegasus went bankrupt in 1998, public agencies had to step in and spend more than $74 million on reclamation and treatment at the Zortman-Landusky mine. Costs at that project continue to mount because water treatment is required in perpetuity.

Montana lawmakers expanded the “bad actor” provisions of the Metal Mine Reclamation Act in 2001 after taxpayers were left holding the bag on mine cleanup. The provision prohibits individuals from former companies from taking on any new projects if they failed to properly button up their mining projects or left DEQ in the lurch for clean-up and reclamation costs.

“Pegasus is the poster child for irresponsible mining, and Montanans continue to suffer from the company’s toxic legacy,” Earthjustice attorney Katherine O’Brien said.

The groups further contend that Pegasus’ Basin Creek and Beal Mountain mines caused acid mine drainage and toxic metals from those projects have polluted streams and groundwater, threatened a native trout fishery and contaminated sacred sites of the Fort Belknap Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes.

Crowe Costello said she’s not aware of Montana’s “bad actor” provision having been invoked since it was enacted.

“This would be the first time,” she said.

Hecla, meanwhile, said its track record is plainly visible with the environmental requirements and reclamation efforts underway at the company’s mine near Troy, Mont.

The conservation groups have asked for a decision from DEQ within 60 days.

Keith Kinnaird can be reached by email at kkinnaird@bonnercountydailybee.com and follow him on Twitter @KeithDailyBee.

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