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Viewpoint: BLM should protect Fort Belknap Indian Community from further pollution

Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder

Imagine living in a rural community and watching your waterways run red with contamination from a nearby, poorly planned, now-closed gold mine. This scene is a reality for the Fort Belknap Indian Community (FBIC) which watched in horror as their once pristine mountain waters became no longer safe to drink, let alone touch.

That is why the FBIC are now staunchly opposed to new mining proposals in the Little Rockies. For the Aaniiih and Nakoda people, the mountains are a place of significant cultural importance. To continue mining would reopen wounds to the land, their culture, health and well-being – all of which are interrelated.

The impacts of the Zortman-Landusky mine are still felt today in a way that cannot be properly reconciled. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), however, has an opportunity to protect the FBIC and the surrounding environment from further degradation and environmental injustice. To do this, the BLM has proposed to renew its previous 20-year mineral withdrawal of 3,500 acres at and surrounding the Zortman-Landusky mine.

 It should be noted that the mineral withdrawals do not block public access for recreational purposes to the withdrawn acreage, excluding the location of the Zortman-Landusky Mine, which is closed to the public. The purpose of the withdrawal is to prevent hard rock mining claims from being filed, and existing ones from being pursued. The BLM may still allow sand and gravel mining and grazing permits.

As the state representative for House District 32, and an enrolled tribal member of the Chippewa Cree Tribe with familial ties to the FBIC, I expect BLM to ensure their past mistakes, allowing a lapse in protections, do not occur again. I also encourage Montana citizens and taxpayers to tell BLM that you support the withdrawal of the full 3,500 acres for another 20 years.

An account of the past mining history at Zortman-Landusky puts the severity of the environmental injustices at hand into perspective. Pegasus Gold Corporation began operations at the Zortman-Landusky mine in 1979. As open pit mining expanded, acid mine drainage and cyanide began contaminating waterways including those draining into the adjacent Fort Belknap Reservation.

Heavy metal contamination made the water unsafe to drink, destroyed fish populations, and caused irreparable damage to locations of tribal cultural importance such as the tribes’ powwow and Sun Dance grounds. As many Montanans know, after Pegasus went bankrupt in 1998, they left behind almost 20 years of destruction at the Zortman-Landusky mine and insufficient funds for reclamation.

Pegasus left Montana taxpayers footing the bill, which has exceeded tens of millions of dollars. Though attempts of reclamation projects have been active at the site since 1999, water treatment will be necessary forever. These environmental, cultural, and health impacts are still felt by the FBIC today.

I personally have close ties to Fort Belknap through my family and serve as the legislative representative for the FBIC. I believe the consideration for the Aaniih and Nakoda people BLM is providing will help prevent further damage to areas of cultural importance to the FBIC. The door to further environmental injustices for the tribes will be closed for at least 20 years with the establishment of another mineral withdrawal.

Tribal opposition to new mining activity in and around the mine has been well expressed in the media and to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. Supporting this initiative would be supporting a fight that the FBIC has been fighting for decades.

 To ensure BLM properly represents the citizens they are tasked with hearing, you can comment on the EA, letting BLM know you support the implementation of the 3,500 acre 20-year mineral withdrawal. To do this, you can submit electronic comments at https://eplanning.blm.gov or mail comments directly to: BLM Malta Field Office; Re: Z-L Withdrawal; 501 South 2nd Street East; Malta, MT 59538.

This comment period ends May 3, 2022.

Jonathan Windy Boy is a representative in the Montana House of Representatives.