Hecla Mining Co. has stopped reclamation work at its closed silver and copper mine in Troy in a dispute with state environmental officials over alleged “bad actor” violations at its other Montana mining projects.
Hecla maintains its permit to clean up the Troy site is legally linked to operating permits for related projects at its Rock Creek and Montanore mines, according to Montana Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Libby, who has done environmental security work for Hecla.
“How are they able to continue work reclaiming if the notice of violation takes away that capability? That’s the key thing,” Gunderson said on Tuesday. “They’re getting called a bad actor as they reclaim a mine they’ve never taken one ounce of ore out of. There’s no distinction between the operating permits, but the state is saying you can’t mine but you can reclaim.”
Not so, according to Montana Department of Environmental Quality Director Tom Livers. In an email on Tuesday, Livers said his agency has taken no action to suspend or revoke permits tied to the Rock Creek or Montanore projects.
The agency has sued Hecla because its chief executive officer, Philip S. Baker Jr., may be in violation of the state Metal Mines Reclamation Act “bad actor” rule, which blocks mine operators with unresolved past reclamation duties from engaging in new projects.
Baker was a top financial officer of Pegasus Gold Inc., which forfeited its reclamation bonds when it declared bankruptcy in 1998 for the Zortman-Landusky, Beal Mountain and Basin Creek mines in Montana. State cleanup efforts on those mines have cost about $35 million to date, and are anticipated to require more than $2 million a year for water treatment in perpetuity. Hecla, which is based in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, argues that neither the company nor Baker is responsible for pollution left behind by Pegasus.
The Rock Creek and Montanore mines seek ore veins extending under the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness north of Libby. Opponents claim the mines could damage the water aquifer feeding lakes and streams in the wilderness area, threatening bull trout, grizzly bears and other sensitive species.
“In the meantime, the action against Mr. Baker has no impact on reclamation operations at Troy,” Livers wrote. “DEQ and Hecla worked diligently together this spring to amend the reclamation plan for the Troy Mine to enable summer 2018 construction. Hecla has a clear legal obligation to complete reclamation at this site in a timely manner regardless of pending legal action. Despite this, they’ve chosen to make this decision and are tying it to the lawsuit against Baker.”
Livers said DEQ has asked a state court for guidance on whether Baker is banned from new mining activity in Montana. He added the agency has received no response from Hecla on proposals to resolve the matter.
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The shutdown in Troy comes just a week after Kootenai National Forest Supervisor Chris Savage notified Hecla that he’d completed a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the Rock Creek silver/copper project in Sanders County. Once the decision completes a 30-day review period, Hecla could begin its first phase of mine operations.
“Clearly, the federal agencies see the value of the Rock Creek project and have done their part to try to bring 300 high-paying jobs to the residents of northwest Montana while considering appropriate environmental issues and protections,” Hecla subsidiary RC Resources general manager Doug Stiles said in an email on July 25. “At the same time, we are dismayed that the governor’s office, with its recent legal push against Hecla on the bad actor provision, is standing in the way of an opportunity to responsibly develop natural resources and provide jobs to an area with the highest unemployment rate in the state.”
Work at Troy has cost about $6 million and is expected to take another two to three years, Stiles said. The state holds a $24.7 million reclamation bond to ensure work at the site is completed.
Stiles suggested the company would resume work at Troy at some point in the future. But for now, the cleanup's manager has been transferred to another Hecla site in Nevada and three remaining workers on-site will conduct maintenance duties, Stiles said.
Fort Belknap Indian Community Council President Andrew Werk contends his reservation still pays for the environmental damage done by the unfinished Zortman-Landusky mine waste.
“The principals of Pegasus should not be allowed to profit from new mines while our community continues to struggle with the mining pollution Pegasus left behind at the Zortman and Landusky sites,” Werk wrote on July 17 when the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation applied to join DEQ in the lawsuit against Baker.
“Pegasus has caused irreparable damage to waters flowing into Swift Gulch and into Little Peoples Creek,'' he said. "Acid mine drainage continues to migrate downstream. Waters in Swift Gulch and other drainages will have to be treated forever. Pegasus and its directors must be held accountable. We are proud to support DEQ’s action in this case and applaud the agency for taking a stand to protect Montana’s waters and environment by enforcing the bad actor law.”
Hecla is scheduled to release its second-quarter financial results for 2018 on Aug. 9.
This story contains information from the Associated Press.