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The Lincoln County Commission wants to share our dismay with a recent decision by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and the Governor’s Office to file a violation against Hecla Mining under the “permit prohibition” provision of Montana Metal Mine Act.

We support the act’s provisions that hold mining operators responsible for cleanup and reclamation of their mining operations. However, we believe the state is misapplying the statute in this instance. Montana Code Annotated 82-4-360 states: “a person may not conduct mining or exploration activities in this state if that person or any firm or business association of which that person was a principal or controlling member had a bond forfeited under this part, if the department otherwise received proceeds from a surety to perform reclamation on that person's behalf, or if the person's surety completed reclamation on the person's behalf.”

Phillips Baker, as chief financial officer, was neither a principle or controlling member of Pegasus Mining; he was an employee with no direct decision authority over mining operations. Furthermore, Baker left employment with Pegasus in early 1998, well before the state “received proceeds from a surety to perform reclamation” when the Pegasus bankruptcy was finalized in early 1999.

Hecla Mining Company has never had any association with Pegasus. How can Hecla be held accountable for the actions of a company over which they had absolutely no interest? It defies all logic to make one company pay for the actions of another when there is no connection between the two. Not even Superfund — which we are all too familiar with in Lincoln County — requires this type of illegal taking.

As county commissioners, we are sworn to protect the public, economic and environmental health for our citizens, an obligation we place above all else. Hecla's purchase of the Troy, Rock Creek and Montanore mines is the single most positive event in south Lincoln County since the Neils family established J. Neils Lumber Company in the early 1900s. Hecla has become a significant community partner without turning a shovel. They have successfully operated on this continent and others for over 100 years, and have never walked away from a single project nor environmental responsibility as a mine operator. They represent the most proven, experienced and responsible party this state could ask for to develop the Montanore and Rock Creek ore deposits. Protection of the environment is not a matter of compliance for Hecla, it is an organizational culture, all with Baker as CEO for over a decade.

The Rock Creek and Montanore projects are critical not only to Lincoln County’s socioeconomic well-being, but the metals produced are essential to every facet of our economy nationwide to include critical sectors such as health care. In addition, we know the company will develop these projects to the highest environmental standards. We implore our governor and DEQ to reconsider and withdraw this unwarranted action.

This opinion is signed by Lincoln County Commissioners Mike Cole, Mark Peck and Jerry Bennett.

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