(HELENA, Mont.) – Today, tribes and conservation groups announced plans to file a legal action to require the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to fulfill its legal duty to enforce the “bad actor” law against Hecla Mining Co. and Hecla CEO, Phillips S. Baker, Jr. In a response motion filed yesterday in State District Court, the groups informed the court that, as intervenors, they cannot stand in the way of DEQ’s decision to dismiss its case, however they intend to take independent legal action against DEQ for its failure to protect Montana from predatory corporate executives, comply with the law, and enforce the “bad actor” requirement of the Metal Mine Reclamation Act.
“Please be reminded, Pegasus Gold’s corporate strategy to declare bankruptcy back in 1999 left state and federal agencies with the financial responsibility for cleaning up the devastating environmental damage caused by the first large scale open-pit cyanide mine operation in the country,” stated FBIC President Andrew Werk, Jr. “The State of Montana alone has contributed more than $32 million into this effort and more will be needed since the cleanup costs will be in perpetuityIt is DEQ and the Gianforte Administration’s responsibility to uphold the law and not allow Hecla Mining and Baker to profit from new mines while the Fort Belknap Indian Community and other Montana communities continue to struggle with ongoing mining pollution. Their decision to forego enforcement of the law is wrong, plain and simple.”
DEQ filed the “bad actor” enforcement action against Hecla and Baker in March 2018, and was subsequently joined by the Fort Belknap Indian Community, Ksanka Kupaqa Xaʾⱡȼin (a traditional society within the Ktunaxa Nation) and a coalition of five conservation groups (Earthworks, Montana Environmental Information Center, Rock Creek Alliance, Clark Fork Coalition and Montana Conservation Voters), who intervened in support of the case in July 2018. Earthjustice represents the conservation groups and Ksanka Kupaqa Xaʾⱡȼin.
After the State District Court ruled that DEQ did indeed have jurisdiction over the Idaho-based company and Baker, DEQ announced it was dropping the case, citing the election of a new Governor, among other reasons.
“DEQ has done a one-eighty on enforcing the bad actor law,” said Mary Costello, executive director of the Rock Creek Alliance. “They are allowing political favors to the mining industry to undermine the law and, in doing so, are abdicating their responsibility to protect Montana taxpayers from current and future liabilities.”
The “bad actor” law was enacted in 2001 to prevent senior mining executives and companies from receiving a new permit to mine in Montana if they’ve failed to clean-up past operations unless they reimburse the state for those clean-up costs.
Baker served as the Vice President and Chief Financial Officer for Pegasus Gold, when it filed for bankruptcy in 1998, leaving the State of Montana with tens of millions of dollars in cleanup costs when the company abandoned its operations at the Zortman Landusky, Beal Mountain and Basin Creek gold mines. The state has spent more than $30 million at Zortman-Landusky alone, where acid mine drainage despoiled the land, water, and sacred sites of the Fort Belknap Tribes, whose reservation borders the mine site. Publicly funded water treatment costs continue at Zortman Landusky and Beal Mountain today, and are likely to continue forever.
Hecla and its CEO, Baker, are currently proposing two massive new copper/silver mines adjacent to and underneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness in northwestern Montana that have been the subject of two recent court decisions because the company’s mine plans failed to comply with the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act.
“DEQ’s decision to abandon this case allows and encourages wealthy mining executives to walk out on their clean-up responsibilities in Montana,” said Bonnie Gestring, northwest program director at Earthworks. “It’s DEQ’s job to enforce the law and hold polluters responsible for clean-up, not give bad actors a free pass to leave Montanans holding the bag.”
“Phillips S. Baker is a bad actor, plain and simple,” said Anne Hedges, Director of Policy for the Montana Environmental Information Center. “His actions at Pegasus Gold were so egregious that a Republican-controlled legislature passed a bill signed by Republican Governor Judy Martz, to prevent this type of corporate predator from doing business here unless they reimburse taxpayers for the harm they’ve caused. DEQ and the Governor’s decision to abandon their financial responsibility to this state to benefit a corporate fat cat is a gross dereliction of duty to Montanans.”
“Today’s filing sends a clear message that if Montana DEQ chooses political expediency over its duty to protect Montanans and their environment, then we have no choice but to compel the agency to enforce the law,” said Andrew Gorder, Legal Director for the Clark Fork Coalition.
“Apparently both Governor Greg Gianforte and my three year old need to be taught the same lesson: If you make a mess, you need to clean it up,” said Whitney Tawney, Executive Director for Montana Conservation Voters Education Fund. “The bad actor law is a basic bipartisan statute and ignoring it puts Montanans and future generations at risk.”
“Montana law could not be more clear: DEQ has the power and duty to deny permission to mine in the state to someone who has caused harm to the environment in the past and neglected to remedy the damage,” said Shiloh Hernandez, senior attorney for Earthjustice. “Phillips Baker’s involvement in Hecla puts Hecla in violation of that law, and it is DEQ’s responsibility to keep Baker from causing more damage and costing taxpayers more money to clean up a new mess.”