We understand that there have been “bad actors” in the history of mining in Montana, and that as a result, the state’s people are naturally wary of being exploited again.
Nonetheless, the state’s “bad actor” law is itself being exploited as a means to prevent development of two mines in Northwest Montana.
The Department of Environmental Quality recently notified Hecla Mining CEO Phillips Baker and Hecla Mining itself that they are in violation of Montana’s Metal Mine Reclamation Act. The “bad actor” provision in that act prevents former mining companies and executives from pursuing new projects in Montana if they have outstanding cleanup obligations to the state.
The regulation makes sense on its surface. Holding mining companies and execs accountable is wise policy, but dig deeper and here’s the rub. The goal of the law was to prevent corporate shell games that would allow a “bad actor” to come back in a new form to continue bad behavior.
But that isn’t the case at all here. Pegasus Gold Corp, which employed Baker two decades ago, doesn’t exist anymore and has no relationship to Hecla.
Pegasus and related companies declared bankruptcy in the 1990s and abandoned a series of mines, including Zortman-Landusky, Beal Mountain, and Basin Creek, but since the state was left on the hook for massive clean-up costs, the DEQ is apparently looking for a cash cow to reimburse it.
Since Pegasus doesn’t exist anymore they are going after Baker and his new employer, Hecla, to try to blackmail them into paying more than $30 million in cleanup costs before the unrelated company can proceed with two silver and copper mines in the Cabinet Mountains.
We have no problem with Montana regulators taking steps to ensure that Hecla doesn’t repeat the “bad actor” behavior of Pegasus, but that doesn’t justify holding Hecla accountable for the sins of Pegasus. This is the equivalent of “reparations,” whereby modern-day white people would be ordered to pay a settlement to black people because 160 years ago, some white people owned some black people.
Fortunately, Hecla doesn’t have to fight this battle alone. More than 50 state legislators voiced support for Hecla in a letter sent to Gov. Steve Bullock and Montana Department of Environmental Quality Director Tom Livers.
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 would be hard to argue with that contention. The two mines Hecla wants to develop would each employ hundreds of workers directly, and create 1,000 to 1,500 construction jobs during the three-to-four-year build-out phase. That would inject millions of dollars in wages, taxes and revenue into the hard-hit economies of Sanders and Lincoln counties.
Earthjustice and other groups would do anything to stop those mines from being built, and apparently the Bullock administration intends to aid and abet them in their efforts. We hope wiser heads prevail.
Montana has paid the price for careless stewardship of its natural resources in years past, but that doesn’t mean careful development can’t take place in the future.