Montana DEQ holds Hecla mining in violation of state’s “bad actor” law

Public agencies have spent at estimated $74 million for water treatment, such as these ponds, at the Zortman-Landusky Mines. (Lange Containment Systems Inc.)

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality issued letters of violation to Hecla Mining Co. and its president, Phillips Baker, Jr., this week to say they were in violation of Montana’s “bad actor” mining laws.

The bad actor provision prohibits mining executives who ran companies that failed to complete mine reclamation work as required from starting new mining projects in the state.

The violation letters, issued Tuesday, require Hecla and Baker to take corrective action within 30 days or face enforcement measures in connection with their planned development of the Rock Creek and Montanore Mines in Montana’s Cabinet Mountains.

The DEQ’s decision was hailed by conservation groups.

“Today’s decision establishes that Hecla and Phillips Baker cannot charge ahead with damaging mining proposals in Montana’s Cabinet Mountains unless and until they deal with the toxic legacy that Baker’s former company, Pegasus Gold, left behind,” said Earthjustice attorney Katherine O’Brien.

Hecla has denied responsibility for Pegasus’ actions and said it would challenge the alleged violations.

Baker served as a top official for Pegasus Gold when it declared bankruptcy in 1998. In doing so, the company left behind a toxic mess at the company’s Zortman-Landusky, Beal Mountain and Basin Creek gold mines.

Defaulting on the required reclamation work forced the state to complete tens of millions of dollars in unpaid reclamation work. Public agencies have spent more than $74 million for water treatment at Zortman-Landusky alone.

The latest conflict came to light after DEQ issued an exploration license for Hecla’s proposed Rock Creek Mine and an operating permit for the Montanore Mine. Several groups informed the state agency that Baker and his new company were disqualified from mining under the state’s “bad actor” provisions.

DEQ’s violation letters advise Hecla and Baker that they may seek to comply with the bad actor laws by repaying the state for reclamation expenses at the abandoned Pegasus Mines. The state said it would consider a payment plan.

Hecla may also demonstrate that Baker and any entity under his direction will not conduct mining or exploration activities in Montana, according to DEQ.

“DEQ’s action represents just what Montana’s ‘bad actor’ laws are intended to do — protect our State’s land, water and communities from mining companies that abuse the privilege of operating in Montana.”