What does it say about the mining industry if the Chairman of the National Mining Association has defaulted on his cleanup obligations?
Last month the State of Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality sent formal letters to Hecla Mining Company CEO Phillips Baker, notifying the company and its CEO that they are in violation of the “Bad Actor” provision of the state’s Metal Mine Reclamation Act. Mr. Baker is also the Chairman of the National Mining Association, the industry’s lobbying arm which claims to be “the U.S. mining industry’s advocate in Washington, D.C.”
Montana labeled Mr. Baker and Hecla Mining a ‘Bad Actor’ because the state law prohibits mining companies and their executives from getting a new permit to mine if they’ve failed to clean up past operations — unless they reimburse the State for those cleanup costs. Mr. Baker was Chief Financial Officer and Vice President of Pegasus Gold, which has cost Montana taxpayers tens of millions of dollars to clean up three cyanide-leach gold mines it abandoned when the company went bankrupt. Because the Zortman Landusky Mine will pollute water in perpetuity, the state estimates it will cost 1 to 2 million dollars more each year to treat that polluted water, costs presently borne by Montana taxpayers as well.
Earthworks is part of a coalition represented by Earthjustice that requested Montana enforce the bad actor provision.
This decision is a victory for Montanans and taxpayers who unfairly shoulder the financial burden of mine cleanup. It says loud and clear: mining companies don’t get to pocket Montana’s riches while the public is left with the costs. And it opens the door for justice to be served for the communities still dealing with the pollution from Pegasus’ abandoned mines, where acid mine drainage has devastated the land, water, and sacred sites of the Fort Belknap Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Tribes, whose reservation borders the mine site.
While taxpayers were footing the bill for this cleanup, Phillips Baker returned to Montana at the helm of a different corporation. As CEO of Idaho-based Hecla Mining Company, he plans to develop two massive copper/silver mines proposed beneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness in northwest Montana — the Rock Creek and Montanore Mines. This federally designated Wilderness is no place for mining. It is the aboriginal lands of the Kootenai people, irreplaceable habitat for threatened grizzly bears and bull trout, and contains some of the purest waters in the lower-48 states.
Rather than face up to Baker’s clean-up responsibilities, Hecla’s wholly-owned subsidiaries decided to sue Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality instead. Earthworks and our coalition partners have filed to intervene in the case to support the state’s enforcement of the law.
By suing, Hecla and Mr. Baker demonstrate they don’t understand the law, or they feel free to ignore it. While either is troubling when considering Hecla and its operations in Montana, their attitude constitutes a problem of national significance when considering Phillips Baker’s role as Chairman of the National Mining Association. As NMA Chair he is both the mining industry’s exemplar — their best foot forward — and their leader.
The NMA leads the mining industry’s longtime advocacy to reduce or eliminate ‘duplicative’ public and environmental input into mine permitting across the country. Ironically, Mr. Baker lobbied the Trump Administration to drop new rules that would have allowed the EPA to require mining companies to demonstrate that they have the funds, up front, to conduct clean-up. Under the Trump administration, the NMA has enjoyed ready access to Cabinet members and supported Interior Secretary Zinke and EPA Administrator Pruitt’s policies that prioritize mining industry profits over clean water and communities.
So Montana’s decision should set alarm bells ringing across the country because it makes Phillips Baker living proof — as representative of the best of the U.S. mining industry — that we must pause the headlong rush to gut public and environmental oversight of mining. Even their ‘best’ needs more oversight, not less.
And Phillips Baker is representative of the industry. American taxpayers shoulder an enormous financial burden from hardrock mining, our largest toxic polluter according to the EPA Toxic Release Inventory. The EPA estimates the cost to clean up America’s hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines at over $50 billion — a sum far in excess of the entire annual Superfund budget (which the Trump administration has proposed to cut a further 30 percent).
For too long, mining companies — that have extracted America’s riches and left environmental disasters in their wake — have been free to return and mine again. In Montana, it’s a new day. I hope it’s a sign of things to come.
- MT DEQ letters to Phillips Baker and Hecla informing them of ‘Bad Actor’ determination
- Background on threats Hecla’s mine proposals present to the Cabinets Mountains Wilderness
- Earthjustice letter on behalf of Clark Fork Coalition, Earthworks, Montana Environmental Information Center, Rock Creek Alliance, Save Our Cabinets requesting enforcement of the “Bad Actor” provision of the state’s Metal Mine Reclamation Act