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(Fort Belknap Indian Community, Montana) In response to unpermitted and illegal alleged mining activity at the defunct Zortman-Landusky mine site, in early July the Montana Department of Environmental Quality issued a $516,567 penalty to Luke Ployhar, Owen Voigt, and their mining companies. Zortman-Landusky is the site of a former cyanide heap leach gold mine in the Little Rocky Mountains. DEQ described the activity as a violation of major gravity that has compromised reclamation work at the site and represents a risk of acid rock drainage. 

“The Aaniiih and Nakoda Tribes thank the DEQ for upholding the law and issuing a penalty that is commensurate with the egregious violation committed,” said Jeffrey Stiffarm, President of the Fort Belknap Indian Community. “We will continue to protect our precious water and sacred sites in this area of the reservation. This is exactly why we have been fighting over the years for the return of the Grinnell Notch to us.”  

Additionally, DEQ is ordering Luke Ployhar, Owen Voigt and their companies to cease exploration and mining activities until the appropriate permit has been issued, a reclamation bond has been filed, and a penalty has been paid.

DEQ used satellite imaging to determine that the illegal alleged exploration activity occurred “prior to September 20, 2021,” and stated that “Each day that the sites remain unreclaimed is another day that infiltration impacts and ARD [acid rock drainage] are heightened.” 

DEQ and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management have been conducting reclamation and water treatment at the former Zortman-Landusky mine site since 1999, shortly after the former company, Pegasus Gold, filed for bankruptcy. The site was placed under federal Superfund (CERCLA) authority in 2004 to address the threat to public health and the environment from uncontrolled acid drainage. An estimated $80-85 million, primarily state and federal funds, has already been spent for reclamation and water treatment. Acid drainage has caused severe contamination of surface and groundwater in the region, including the lands and waters of the Fort Belknap Indian Community. 

Ployhar denied that the disturbance was mining, instead claiming in an email to DEQ that he was building a campground. Yet the location of the activity, past statements, communications, and the general nature of exploring and mining indicate that the disturbances were made with the intent to mine. 

Since 2020, Ployhar and Voigt have applied three times for an exploration license in the area. The first application was approved by DEQ in February 2021, but they failed to post the reclamation bond required for the exploration license that authorizes surface disturbance. The applicants submitted a second application in March 2021, but asked that it be withdrawn in November 2021. The third application, which was filed in July 2021, is still pending. In February 2022, DEQ determined that an Environmental Impact Statement was necessary to analyze the potential impacts to areas of tribal cultural significance. Ployhar and Voigt appealed the decision to the Board of Environmental Review. 

“It’s infuriating to see such blatant disregard for the decades of reclamation work to control acid drainage and improve water quality in the Little Rockies,” said Bonnie Gestring, Northwest Program Director at Earthworks. “We’re heartened to see DEQ take enforcement action to protect water resources and public health.”

“The devastation at Zortman-Landusky from previous mining activity is unforgivable. The Little Rockies and the Zortman-Landusky area should be off limits to any more mining,” stated Derf Johnson, staff attorney with the Montana Environmental Information Center. “It’s jaw dropping that someone would risk even further environmental devastation, and so we’re heartened to see DEQ crack down on risky mining activity.”

“Our mining laws must be enforced to protect Montana’s greatest attribute: clean water,” said David Brooks, Executive Director at Montana Trout Unlimited. “We’re pleased to see DEQ move forward with this enforcement action.”