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(Harlem, Montana) — Today, the Fort Belknap Indian Community (FBIC) and a coalition of conservation groups filed a complaint with the Office of Inspector General requesting an official investigation into the Department of Interior’s failure to maintain a mineral withdrawal at the Zortman Landusky Reclamation Area, resulting in a crucial 48-hour gap in protections. During those 48 hours, a private, out-of-state company filed ten mining claims within the area – potentially jeopardizing millions of dollars in publicly-funded reclamation work that was conducted to clean up mine pollution resulting from decades of open pit, cyanide leach gold mining.

For 20 years, the Department of Interior has consistently followed established procedure and renewed the mineral withdrawal, which effectively closed the area to new hardrock mining to protect and expedite ongoing reclamation and water treatment. Last October, the Interior Department signed the extension of the mineral withdrawal but failed to publish the public notice of the extension on time, resulting in a two-day gap in protections.

Past hardrock mining operations at the Zortman and Landusky Mines have resulted in severe and lasting damage to the traditional lands of the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Tribes, including extensive surface and groundwater pollution from acid mine drainage and metals pollution throughout the Little Rocky Mountains that continues today.

“We deserve an explanation,” said FBIC President Andrew Werk Jr. “Whether the Department’s failure to properly implement the closure was an honest – albeit careless – mistake or the result of intentional misconduct, the consequences are enormous for the health and wellbeing of our people. With the stakes this high, we must have accountability.”

Staking and filing mining claims is a detailed process that involves considerable research, planning and effort. The staking of mining claims during the two-days’ long lapse in coverage of the withdrawal is particularly concerning – and suspect – given that it takes a great deal of preparation and effort to properly file a mining claim. The complaint also seeks an investigation into whether advance information was provided to claim stakers about the delay in protections.

“It’s hard to imagine that the staking of these claims within the short two-day window is mere coincidence,” explained Earthworks Northwest Program Director Bonnie Gestring. “After 20 years of painstaking work and tens of millions of dollars to reclaim these public lands, it’s devastating to see it all jeopardized in this way. The public must have answers for this breach in protections.”

“Given the history of the Zortman Mine site, the millions of tax dollars that have been spent on cleanup, and the disaster it has been for Fort Belknap’s natural resources, the public deserves to know how new, risky mining claims could have been staked there, especially under such odd, unlikely circumstances,” said Montana Trout Unlimited Executive Director David Brooks.

“The public has spent tens of millions of dollars to reclaim and control the pollution at the former Zortman-Landusky mine site. The fact that someone went up there and staked new mining claims is a slap in the face to the taxpayer, the Fort Belknap Tribe, and the clean water of the area,” stated Derf Johnson, staff attorney with the Montana Environmental Information Center. “The public deserves an explanation for how and why this happened.”

Taxpayers also stand to lose more than $50 million in state and federal dollars that have already been spent on water treatment and other reclamation activities in the area after Pegasus Gold abandoned its responsibility to clean up environmental damage at the abandoned mines. Interior’s announcement of the 20-year extension for the 2,688-acre mineral withdrawal highlighted the importance of the ongoing work, estimating reclamation contracts totalling $70 million and involving moving millions of tons of waste rock and treating hundreds of millions of gallons of water over the next 20 years.

The Fort Belknap Indian Community and conservation interests, including the Montana Environmental Information Center, Earthworks and Montana Trout Unlimited, support the mineral withdrawal in the Zortman and Landusky Reclamation Area to protect the reclamation work that has been completed in the Little Rocky Mountains and the ongoing effort to return the land and water to safe public use. In their Office of Inspector General Complaint, the Tribes and conservation groups are seeking answers to several questions, including:

  1. Why wasn’t the public notice of the proposed 20-year mineral withdrawal filed in a timely manner to prevent the lapse in protections?
  2. What communication occurred between the state, regional and Washington offices with respect to the mineral withdrawal? What was the timeline by which the segregation notice arrived at the Interior Department?
  3. Whose responsibility was it to ensure the timely and continued withdrawal of these lands?
  4. When were the mining claims physically staked? Is the BLM reviewing the validity of these claims?
  5. What communication occurred between the BLM or Interior and Blue Arc LLC, Luke Ployhar, or any other person or principal associated with the claims? Were these communications proper and/or legal? It takes considerable time and advanced planning to stake mining claims. How did the mining company know that the Public Land Order had expired and the withdrawal extension had not yet been noticed in the Federal Register? Was Luke Ployhar or anyone else informed in advance that the withdrawal extension would be delayed?
  6. Why wasn’t the Fort Belknap Indian Community notified by any federal agency of the lapse of the withdrawal or the subsequent staking of mining claims?
  7. What steps are being taken to address this lapse?
  8. Why was the mineral withdrawal area reduced in size, and who made the decision?

View the Office of Inspector General Complaint Letter here: https://img1.wsimg.com/blobby/go/d94bfdb9-dd85-49bd-94c2-4822ef04bf3b/downloads/OIG%20Complaint%20Letter%2010-05-2021.pdf?ver=1633457665237

Andrew Werk Jr., President, Fort Belknap Indian Community, 406-390-2650, andy.werk@ftbelknap.org

Bonnie Gestring, Earthworks, 406-546-8386, bgestring@earthworksaction.org

Derf Johnson, Montana Environmental Information Center, 406-443-2520, djohnson@meic.org         David Brook, Montana Trout Unlimited, 406-543-0054, david@montanatu.org