Full reclamation of area demanded

HELENA - The Fort Belknap Indian tribes sued the federal government Wednesday for past and continuing environmental damages stemming from the nearby Zortman and Landusky gold mines, demanding full reclamation of the area.

The Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes sued the Bureau of Land Management in U.S. District Court in Missoula for breaching its trust responsibility to the tribes by approving and expanding the now-defunct Zortman and Landusky mines near Malta. The tribes argued the federal agency failed to protect tribal health from mining impacts and to prevent degradation of public lands.

The two tribes make up the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, which sits adjacent to the sister gold mines in northcentral Montana. The 20-year-old open-pit, cyanide heap leach mines were once owned by now-bankrupt Pegasus Gold Corp. and now are overseen by a bankruptcy court trustee.

Tribal members didn't ask for any financial restitution in their lawsuit, but instead asked the federal government to fully restore the mine area. They said cleanup is owed to them because the federal government failed to ensure protection of reservation water quality and quantity and spiritual and religious interests in and around the mine area.

"When the government forced the tribes to cede these mountains, they promised there would be no impacts to water resources," said Joe McConnell, president of the Fort Belknap Community Council. "As new studies are produced, however, the extent of the acid mine drainage, water pollution and water taken from the tribes continues to increase."

Scott Haight of Lewistown, BLM mineral resource specialist, said while the lawsuit must still be reviewed by the agency's legal experts, federal environmental officials have investigated water quality problems at the site and determined there isn't a threat to Fort Belknap residents.

"We're continually looking at that, and there are no health effects occurring at the site," said Haight.

He also took issue with allegations that the federal government has failed to fulfill its trust responsibility to the tribes' cultural interests, saying that its obligation to the tribes is specific to the tribes' "hard assets," such as water rights and land. He also noted that the mines don't sit on tribal-owned land.

Andrew Huff, attorney with the Indian Law Resource Center, which represents the tribes, said the lawsuit is designed to hold the federal government accountable. A similar lawsuit against the state, filed in 1996, is still pending.

"The focus of the suit is the past violations and destruction the mines caused to tribal water resources and other resources," said Huff. "The idea is to hold the federal government responsible in order to make sure this kind of badly managed mine doesn't occur in the future."

Haight questioned the tribes' timing of the lawsuit. On the one hand, he said it appears "a bit after the fact" that the tribes would sue now since the last mine expansion was approved in 1994. At the same time, however, he asked why tribes wouldn't wait to sue until after state and federal officials have completed its new environmental cleanup plan of Zortman and Landusky.

State and federal officials announced last month that, after changing circumstances at Zortman and Landusky mines, they would revisit the cleanup plan to determine the best means to reclaim the site. That review is expected to look at all alternatives for cleanup, including full restoration, as desired by the tribes, and the existing cleanup plan, approved in 1998.

Huff said, in part, the lawsuit was filed to ensure the tribes' interests are heavily weighed when officials revisit the mines' cleanup plan.

"We want to make sure the agencies aren't just going through the motions," said Huff. "We want to make sure that actual, effective reclamation takes place because they are the ones that live up there."

The state has about $30 million held in bonds to reclaim the mines. The tribes are asking to spend as much as $125 million to fully reclaim the area.

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