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Enviro, tribal groups upset with Gianforte over Hecla mining decision

Posted at 5:51 PM, Jul 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-16 10:58:08-04

MISSOULA — Environmental and conservation groups, and some tribal leaders, are saying they're "deeply disappointed" with the Gianforte administration for deciding not to use a recent ruling to press "bad actors" to clean up mine waste.

A Gianforte spokesperson said the governor is simply empowering state agencies to act as they see fit.

The question first came up in 2018, when the Bullock administration, through the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), faulted Hecla Mining President and CEO Phillip Baker Jr. for his involvement in the ill-fated Pegasus Gold operations in the Little Rocky Mountains.

That company went bankrupt 20-years ago, leaving behind cyanide and other contamination at Zortman, which costs the state $2 million per year.

Mining critics had referenced the state law shortly after Hecla purchased and proposed expansion of the Montanore Mine near Libby and the Rock Creek Mine on the west slope of the Cabinet Mountains.

They had hoped the rule could block Hecla, although the company argued over Baker's actual involvement in the Zortman contamination.

In May, Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Mike Menahan ruled DEQ did have jurisdiction to enforce the "bad actor" law.

However, Thursday, new DEQ Director Chris Dorrington announced the state wouldn't pursue the Hecla case, saying there were "complex, procedural hurdles" and that it would be better to address the overall question through legislation.

Dorrington said that way Montana could deal with future "bad actor" cases, applying to all mining companies, rather than just "one company".

But environmental and conservation groups such as the Clark Fork Coalition were quick to react today, accusing Gianforte's administrators of letting Baker off "scot free".

Bonnie Gestring, Northwest Program Director at Earthworks said, "We're deeply disappointed to see the Gianforte Administration abandon this enforcement action."

Montana Trout Unlimited Executive Director David Brooks accused DEQ of "walking away from the only real shot at defending Montanans from being bilked out of millions of dollars of taxpayer money by Baker and Pegasus."

Gianforte spokeswoman Brooke Stroyke sent this statement to MTN News in response:

“For all matters relating to protecting Montana’s environment and Montana taxpayers, the governor entrusted and empowered DEQ to take action the agency thinks is most appropriate," she wrote.

There's been no immediate reaction from Hecla Mining on the decision.