As a hunter and angler who’s lived in the Upper Clark Fork River Valley between Deer Lodge and Anaconda for more than 30 years, I can attest to the damaging legacy of mining on our waterways. In 1908, a massive flood carried toxic mine tailings from Butte down the Clark Fork River, contaminating the river and the floodplain. To this day, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to clean up these toxic mine tailings in Butte, Silver Bow Creek, and the river. For 30 years, I’ve worked with local citizen groups to fight for a proper cleanup of the contamination, and after all that time, the cleanup isn’t close to being done.
What I’ve learned over the years is that the best way to clean up mining contamination is to prevent it in the first place. Gov. Gianforte and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) have a chance to do this and save potential millions in cleanup costs if they enforce the Bad Actor law against a former Pegasus Gold Corporation executive, as is their job.
Pegasus Gold’s Beal Mountain Mine is about 20 miles southwest of where I live near Anaconda, as the crow flies. This open-pit cyanide heap leach mine stopped operating in 1997. A year later, Pegasus Gold declared bankruptcy.
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Now, the Forest Service spends $350,000 of taxpayer money each year mitigating Pegasus’s poor cleanup job at the defunct Beal Mountain Mine. They must pump and treat water from the mine’s abandoned heap, which contains cyanide compounds and metals. The heap, which continually fills with water, must be pumped to remove the buildup of toxic water and ensure it doesn’t result in a catastrophic release of contaminants into German Gulch Creek.
At this mine, wastewater breaches in the 1990s sent selenium contaminated waters downstream from the mine into German Gulch, a favorite stream of anglers because of the population of genetically pure native west slope cutthroat trout. Thousands of fish were impacted from the toxic selenium, and the stream took many years to recover. It’s important to note that German Gulch is a tributary to Silver Bow Creek, which in turn flows into the Clark Fork River. Until threats from the Beal Mountain Mine are permanently remediated, both Silver Bow Creek and the Clark Fork River will continue to be at risk of toxic pollution from Pegasus’s mine.
Phillips S. Baker was serving as the vice president and chief financial officer for Pegasus Gold when it filed for bankruptcy. In response to the Pegasus bankruptcy, the Montana Legislature passed an amendment in 2001 to the Montana Metals Mine Reclamation Act. Gov. Judy Martz, from Butte, signed the bill into law. The amendment contains the “Bad Actor” provision, which requires mining companies and their executives to complete past cleanup operations or reimburse the state for cleanup costs before they can get permits for new mines.
Today, Mr. Baker is the CEO of Hecla Mining Co., which is proposing two new copper/silver mines in northwestern Montana. According to the Bad Actor provision, before Mr. Baker can get a permit for these new mines, he must complete cleanup on his old mines or reimburse the state for the cleanup costs. That is the law in Montana, and it’s meant to protect our water and lands from further contamination.
In 2018, DEQ started an enforcement action against Mr. Baker and Hecla Mine Co, and a district court ruled that the Montana Bad Actor law applies in that case. However, rather than enforcing the law, Gov. Gianforte’s administration dropped the case entirely.
Pollution from Pegasus Mines around the state has contaminated drinking water, harmed agricultural lands, and caused lasting damage to fish and wildlife habitats and our public lands. Now it’s time for the governor and DEQ to enforce the law, a law passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in the Legislature. The law is clear -- if you make a toxic mess, if you pollute our lands and waters, injure our public fish and wildlife and public lands, you need to clean it up before you can get a permit for a new mine.
Please governor, do your job.
Kathy Hadley serves on the board of the National Wildlife Federation and the Clark Fork River Technical Assistance Committee and has focused her conservation efforts on protecting and conserving wildlife habitat, restoring natural resources, and maintaining public access to public lands.