State: Hecla violated ‘bad actor’ law

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Hecla Mining Company equipment. (Paul Sievers/The Western News file photo)

Hecla Mining Company has hit another obstacle in its effort to mine the Cabinet Mountains.

This past fall, the Forest Service gave its subsidiary, RC Resources, permission for the first phase of its Rock Creek Mine, which, together with its Montanore mine, would extract silver and copper from the mountains near Libby.

State authorities may block these projects. On Tuesday, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality notified Hecla President and CEO Phillips S. Baker, Jr. that it had reason to believe he was in violation of state environmental laws. This turn of events could prohibit him from undertaking new mining operations.

The department’s decision came after a coalition of environmental groups urged action against Baker.

In the 1990s, Baker served as an executive at Pegasus Gold, Inc., which owned the Zortman-Landusky, Basin Creek and Beal Mountain mines and left the soil and water in their vicinities severely contaminated. Pegasus went bankrupt in 1998, forfeiting a $30 million reclamation bond. Even with these funds, the state and federal governments have had to pay millions more in reclamation costs.

A section of the Mining Metals Reclamation Act, typically known as the “bad actor provision,” forbids officials of companies that had forfeited reclamation bonds from undertaking new mining projects, unless they reimburse Montana for reclamation costs it had incurred and penalties they had received, plus interest, and demonstrate that the conditions surrounding the forfeiture have been resolved.

“These provisions prohibit Hecla from receiving hard rock exploration licenses or operating permits or conducting exploration or mining activities,” argued Katherine O’Brien, Aurora Janke and Tim Preso, attorneys for environmental law nonprofit Earthjustice, in a letter to the Department of Environmental Quality director Tom Livers last October.

Livers agreed, informing Baker of his violation, and giving him 30 days to pursue one of two corrective options: making the payments required by the bad actor provision; or proving that he would not direct any of Hecla’s Montana mining operations.

If Baker pursues neither of these courses within 30 days, Livers continued, the department could pursue a number of punitive actions, including suspending Hecla’s exploration licenses and operating permits.

This development marks the latest of many controversies since 1987, when ASARCO first proposed mining the ecologically sensitive area in and around the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness.

Hecla did not reply to a request for comment.

Patrick Reilly can be reached at preilly@dailyinterlake.com, or at 758-4407.

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