Montana is rich in natural resources, and developing them is a big part of our economy. I was fortunate enough to make a living off of timber, producing structural beams in the foothills of the Cabinet Mountains. But it came with responsibility. The Cabinets, and the mountains’ clean water and wildlife, are a priceless treasure that belongs to all of us. Careful stewardship ensures our forests continue providing the building materials and jobs we count on -- and supports our outdoor heritage with clean water and wildlife habitat.
That same stewardship principle should hold true for any industry that relies on natural resources. Mining is different from forestry, but we can use a simple rule -- one most children learn by the time they are 5 years old -- to govern responsible behavior:
If you make a mess, clean it up.
Unfortunately, Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is letting the Hecla Mining Company flout this simple rule.
DEQ has issued the company permits to develop the Rock Creek and Montanore mines underneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, even though Hecla is led by an individual whose former Montana mining venture left us with huge, expensive messes. The President and CEO of Hecla, Phillips S. Baker Jr., formerly served as a top executive at Pegasus Gold. Pegasus went bankrupt and left Montana taxpayers with the cleanup costs for the Zortman-Landusky, Beal Mountain and Basin Creek Mines.
Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, a staff attorney for DEQ at the time, called Pegasus’ bankruptcy liquidation plan “abysmal” for Montana, according to a recent Missoulian article. The state and federal agencies have already spent over $74 million at Zortman-Landusky alone, and Montanans are on the hook for an additional $2-3 million every year for water treatment that will be required to deal with acid mine drainage indefinitely.
Letting the leadership of Pegasus profit from new mining projects in Montana while the public is still paying to clean up that company’s old messes is unfair and irresponsible.
The good news is we have a law on the books to hold these “bad actors” accountable. The law says that companies and their top executives must clean up their old mines before receiving a permit for a new one. They are required to reimburse Montana for any cleanup costs, and ensure that the work is done, before opening a new mine in the state.
DEQ should hit the brakes on the permitting process. State law says these mines simply cannot proceed until the previous mess is cleaned up and taxpayers repaid.
Discouragingly, Senator Daines and Representative Gianforte are now doing Hecla political favors by urging federal agencies to fast track the permitting process for the Rock Creek and Montanore mines. In a September 28, 2017, letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, they pledged to personally assist Hecla in advancing its projects, including through “legislative vehicles.”
Last I checked, our Congressional representatives served the interests of Montanans, not mining companies. Montana has seen its fair share of companies come in and profit from mining our natural resources without cleaning up after themselves. Daines and Gianforte should be defending Montanans who are still suffering from the harm Baker’s former companies caused and who want to see the Cabinet Mountains protected from his new enterprises.
Natural resource jobs are critical to Sanders County and Montana’s other rural communities. Yet we must be responsible, and balance the need for jobs with the long-term health of the land, water and economy.