Bad actor

Was Montana right to go after Hecla’s CEO?

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Phillips Baker Jr., chief executive officer of Hecla Mining Company, talks about the changes the mining industry during an interview from 2017. Montana is trying to hold Hecla responsible for the mining practices of a company where Baker previously served as chief financial officer. (Shawn Gust photo/Coeur d’Alene Press)

When critics of the Mining Bad Actors Law attack Montana’s enforcement of a state law that protects taxpayers from shouldering the clean-up bill for mining companies, it’s clearly time to impose an old-fashioned smell test. In weaving together their argument, they got many of their facts wrong.

I live in the community where Baker’s company proposes to mine. And as the retired owner of a sawmill and wood products company I know the challenges of creating jobs and making a livelihood in rural Montana. I also understand the obligations businesses and their leaders must take on when they seek the privilege of developing our state’s natural resources.

From my perspective, the bad actor law is common sense. It simply says that mining companies and their top executives don’t get another shot at our state’s natural resources if they walked out on their clean-up obligations in the past — unless they’re prepared to pay back the state for clean-up work the public had to do in the company’s place.

Given that the bad actor law was enacted by a Republican-controlled Legislature, signed into law by a Republican governor, it’s far-fetched to suggest that the law is ridiculous and irresponsible.

The decision by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to enforce the bad actor law against Baker is perfectly sensible. Before taking the helm at Hecla, Baker was a top executive at Pegasus Gold, which operated gold mines across Montana and reneged on its clean-up obligations.

There have been claims that Baker is being unfairly targeted because Pegasus filed for bankruptcy after Baker had departed. Not true. Pegasus filed for bankruptcy in January 1998 while Baker was serving as the top financial official.

It has been argued that Baker had no decision making role and should not be held responsible. He was vice president and CFO of Pegasus and one of the five top officials. DEQ is holding him accountable because the law is clear.

The collapse of Pegasus on Baker’s watch left a sprawling mess of dangerous contamination at multiple mines. Pollution from the Pegasus mines has contaminated drinking water, harmed agricultural lands, and caused lasting damage to fish and wildlife habitat and our public lands. Baker has since moved on, but those downstream of these Pegasus mines have been left to deal with the mess through no fault of their own.

It has been stated that DEQ used the mine’s reclamation bond to clean up the sites, but the clean-up costs have far surpassed the bond. More than $27 million in public funds (state and federal) has been spent at just the Zortman Landusky mine, and the public will be burdened with $1 million to $2 million in costs every year, forever, to treat contaminated water at the site.

There have been cries of 600 jobs lost, ignoring the fact that if Baker cared he would comply with the law by stepping down. Hecla would solve its legal problem under Montana’s bad actor statute and only one job would be lost.

At the end of the day, Montana can ill afford to subsidize mining executives that can’t be bothered to clean up after themselves. In fact, many Montanans are concerned about protecting the more than 71,000 jobs provided by Montana’s $7.1 billion outdoor recreation industry.

Inviting back the same mining executives whose companies have trashed our state’s environment in the past would not serve the tens of thousands of Montanans who want those jobs for the long-term.

The state is right to enforce our laws and protect the many Montana businesses who operate responsibly and rely on a clean and healthy environment.

Jim Nash is the former owner of Specialty Beams, a sawmill and wood products company in Noxon.

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