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HELENA (AP) - Tribal leaders on Fort Belknap Indian Reservation filed suit in federal court Thursday in an effort to force the cleanup of two abandoned gold mines near Malta.

The tribes sued the state Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, along with the mine site's current owner, Luke Ployhar.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Helena, claims the open-pit gold mines have violated the federal Clean Water Act and that polluted water continues to flow from the mines and onto the reservation.

"The water pollution is just not getting cleaned up and we have to bring this lawsuit to protect our people and water," Benjamin Speakthunder, president of the Fort Belknap Indian Community Council, said in a written statement Thursday. "The area is still so contaminated that even the water treatment plants are discharging polluted water."

Jan Sensibaugh, director of the state Department of Environmental Quality, and Scott Haight, mineral policy specialist for the BLM in Lewistown, said they had not been served with the lawsuit and could not immediately comment. Ployhar could not immediately be reached for comment.

The Assiniboine and Gros Ventre Tribes on the Fort Belknap reservation have been embroiled in a long-running dispute over the abandoned Zortman and Landusky gold mines south of Malta.

The company that operated the mines, Pegasus Gold Inc., ceased operations and filed for bankruptcy in 1998. The tribes say the company did not have a large enough reclamation bond to ensure adequate cleanup of cyanide contamination. Cyanide was used to leach gold from ore, a practice now banned in the state.

The tribes contend polluted water continues to drain from the mines in the Little Rocky Mountains, along the southern end of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.

They argue that the DEQ and the BLM assumed responsibility for the clean up in the 1990s, while Ployhar is responsible for residue currently leaking from the area.

The BLM has said previously that it is cleaning up the site, spending about $800,000 a year to send water through treatment plants. Haight said in October that costs for restoring the ground will total about $34 million by this fall.

Charlie Tebbutt, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center of Eugene, Ore., which is representing the tribes, said the work being done so far is clearly not enough.

"The lawsuit was filed to bring an end to the years of devastating pollution from these poisonous mine sites," he said. "Whatever the responsible parties have been doing in the name of reclamation is just not working."

This is not the first lawsuit brought over the matter.

In 1993 the tribes settled a lawsuit with Pegasus Gold that forced the firm to put machinery in place to clean up the sites.

In 2002, the Fort Belknap tribes sued the state under Montana law, saying its cleanup plans were inadequate. That lawsuit is pending.

On the Net: Western Environmental Law Center

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