More than 50 state legislators voiced support for Hecla Mining Company in a letter sent Friday to Governor Steve Bullock and Montana Department of Environmental Quality Director Tom Livers.
Hecla subsidiaries own two early-stage mining projects, as well as one being reclaimed, in Northwest Montana. The firm was at risk of losing its state permits, Livers warned Hecla President and CEO Phillips J. Baker, Jr. last month, because Baker’s involvement with another company likely placed him in violation of the state’s “bad actor” environmental law.
Earthjustice, an environmental law nonprofit, had sought and applauded this action. But it drew a lawsuit from the Hecla subsidiaries.
In the latest twist to this dispute, dozens of state lawmakers have co-signed a letter to Livers and Governor Bullock opposing the state’s action.
The letter’s author, Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Libby, cast the state’s move as “another thinly veiled ploy of obstructionist groups that desire nothing more than to kill Montana’s economy and thwart responsible mineral extraction.
“It is obvious this is a last-ditch attempt to misuse our own well-intended environmental laws to stop prudent and responsible mining in our state,” he wrote.
Fifty-five of Gunderson’s colleagues, many of them from the Flathead, co-signed the letter. Speaking with the Daily Inter Lake, the Libby Republican said blocking the mines would deprive his district of a much-needed windfall.
“I have constituents in my county as well as counties around me….that are out of work,” he said. “We can’t mine, we can’t log, we’re being pushed into a corner by the environmental movement, and this decision is just another crack in the armor.”
Gunderson pointed to data from the Montana Mining Association, an industry group, predicting that Hecla’s Rock Creek and Montanore mines would each employ 340 workers directly, create 1,000 to 1,500 construction jobs during the three-to-four-year build-out phase, and inject millions of dollars in wages, taxes and revenue into the economy.
But any mine also has cleanup costs, and companies don’t always cover them. Hecla’s Baker once served as an executive of Pegasus Gold, Inc., whose 1998 bankruptcy left the state and federal governments with millions in reclamation costs.
In March, Livers informed Baker that, under the Mining Metals Reclamation Act, Hecla was barred from undertaking new mining projects in Montana unless he either reimbursed the state with interest or proved that he, and any firms under his control, were not involved in the mining.
In Gunderson’s view, this “bad actor” rule aimed to keep companies from re-forming under new names and resuming mining.
“That’s what it’s made to stop,” he claimed, saying that the state was remiss in its focus on Baker.
Luke Russell, the company’s vice president for external affairs, agreed, saying that the letter’s authors “certainly agreed with us that the DEQ is misinterpreting the statue.” Arguing that Hecla had no connection with Pegasus’ mines, he described the state’s decision as “assigning the responsibilities of one company to another company.”
Both he and Gunderson defended Hecla’s environmental record, including its work to reclaim the area’s Troy mine. Jeni Garcin, public information officer for the department, said in an email that “DEQ recognizes that Hecla’s track record has earned the company a favorable reputation. However, DEQ will act in accordance with the laws of the State of Montana.”
And Katherine O’Brien, one of the Earthjustice attorneys who sought the “bad actor” enforcement, said those laws were obeyed.
“DEQ followed the law and common sense” with its decision, she wrote in an email. “Baker cannot escape his Pegasus legacy by returning to Montana under a different corporate banner.”
Gunderson said he was awaiting a response from Bullock and Livers before commenting on next steps.
Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at email@example.com, or at 758-4407