Tribes, conservation groups sue Montana DEQ to enforce ‘bad actor’ law against Hecla Mining CEO

By Reader Staff

A group of Northwest tribes and conservation organizations joined forces Nov. 10 to sue the state of Montana in district court, demanding that its Department of Environmental Quality enforce the “bad actor” law against Hecla Mining Company and CEO Phillips S. Baker, Jr.

The Montana DEQ filed a bad actor enforcement action against Idaho-based Hecla and Baker in 2018, citing failure to pay for environmental restoration efforts at the Zortman-Landusky, Beal Mountain and Basin Creek gold mines. Conservation groups, residents and other stakeholders fear mine waste poses a danger to regional water quality, including in the Lake Pend Oreille watershed.

Hecla pushed back against the enforcement action, stating that Baker had had no liability for the failed clean-up efforts, as they resulted from the bankruptcy of Pegasus Gold, which had developed the mines and Baker served as vice president and chief financial officer at the time. 

Hecla Mining Company and CEO Phillips S. Baker, Jr. Courtesy photo.

“If Pegasus failed to perform [clean-up efforts] pursuant to its permit with the department, Pegasus is exclusively liable,” Hecla stated in March 2018.

Beyond the existing environmental damage — which has cost Montana more than $74 million to date — members of the lawsuit are equally concerned about proposed new mines in the Cabinets, which would be developed by Hecla with Baker as its chief executive. 

Though Montana DEQ leveled the bad actor violation, it later dropped the case. 

“It’s DEQ’s job to enforce the law and prevent corporate polluters from getting off ‘scot-free’ from their cleanup responsibilities,” stated Bonnie Gestring, Northwest program director for Earthworks, which is a party in the new lawsuit, in a media release. “DEQ’s decision to drop this case leaves us no other option than to compel enforcement of our reclamation laws through the courts.” 

Also joining the legal action are the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Fort Belknap Indian Community, Ksanka Elders Advisory Committee and a number of other conservation groups including the Montana Environmental Information Center, Clark Fork Coalition, Rock Creek Alliance, Montana Conservation Voters, Montana Trout Unlimited and Cabinet Resources Group.

“The Cabinet Mountains hold an important position in the relationship between the Ksanka people and all of creation,” stated Vernon Finley of the Ksanka Elders Advisory Committee and a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. “The ‘bad actor’ law is the best way to hold people responsible for attempting to heal the wounds inflicted on nature. To simply free someone from their responsibility is to allow them to do it again and is unforgivable.”

Montana’s bad actor law is intended to prohibit senior mining executives and companies from being granted new permits to mine in the state if they’ve failed to clean up operations in the past — unless they reimburse the state for those costs.

“It’s hard to imagine how DEQ’s about-face on ‘bad actor’ enforcement serves Montanans or fits in with the decades-long work to clean up and restore mining-damaged waterways and landscapes,” stated Karen Knudsen, executive Director of the Clark Fork Coalition. “By backing away, DEQ is inviting mining history to repeat itself – and communities, taxpayers, and clean water will be the ones paying the price.”

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