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DEQ director stresses state will go after "bad actors" in mining industry

Posted at 2:38 PM, Jul 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-16 23:18:20-04

MISSOULA — The head of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is stressing the state will go after "bad actors" who leave behind pollution and mine waste.

But Chris Dorrington feels it's best to pin enforcement on legislative reform, rather than a single case.

The state took heat this week from conservation groups after DEQ announced it wouldn't pursue a claim against Hecla Mining CEO and President Phillip Baker Jr. DEQ had previously launched a case against Baker in 2018.

"This case is messy, and it's expensive. And there's a risk that, should the case go forward, we could end up with an outcome none of us want," Dorrington told MTN News.

"This case has demonstrated the law is unclear. So I'm committed to fixing that. We've spent three years and still haven't gotten to the merits of the case. I think that demonstrates the law's unclear."

The groups, including the Clark Fork Coalition and Trout Unlimited, had supported the state's original complaint against Baker, tying him to the failure of the Pegasus Gold Mine at Zortman, which left behind cyanide and other contamination.

Hecla disputed Baker's involvement. But their opponents tried to argue the "bad actor" law should prevent Hecla from further development of the Montanore and Rock Creek mines in Northwest Montana.

Dorrington believes a bipartisan effort, including various stakeholders, could clarify the law through new legislation. Because the Legislature just finished work this year, it would be 2023 before adjustments could be enacted.

However, Dorrington believes the changes should be accomplished that way, rather than through agency rulemaking.

"I think fundamentally I want people, Montana citizens, and industry to know that we are not letting go of pursuing 'bad actors.' This is a tough case. And so setting that aside we will absolutely pursue "bad actors" that walk from their responsibility to Montana citizens."

Dorrington says DEQ is "working at learning lessons" from Montana's management of mines in the past and putting those "into practice or in law and will continue to do so."