Sunday, June 20, 2021

LTE: Today’s Mines Must Obey Today’s Laws

| December 9, 2020 12:00 AM

Montana is not the only place with an economy that depends on its rich natural resources, though I would argue that it is the most spectacular.

And I learned firsthand, making my living off the state’s timber, the

importance of careful stewardship of the wealth that comes from our rivers and forests. My wood products company sat right at the foot of the Cabinet Mountains, with water so clean and wildlife so abundant, it’s easy to forget that these things are the stuff of memory in most parts of the country.

Our ability to balance economic development with conservation is what sets Montana apart.

In fact, we even have a state law protecting our right to clean water, a law invoked last week when the Montana Supreme Court rejected a pollution permit for the proposed Montanore silver-copper mine.

Montanore is one of two massive mine projects proposed in the Cabinets, home to one of the last grizzly bear populations in the lower-48, not to mention a variety of trout and other coldwater fish.

The Montanore Mine would pollute multiple streams designated as “high quality” waters under Montana law with copper, zinc, chromium, iron, manganese, ammonia, sediment, and other pollutants that are harmful or toxic to aquatic life.

Idaho-based Hecla Mining Company and its subsidiary Montanore Minerals Corporation tried to rely on an expired water pollution permit issued to a different company in the 1990s to evade current Montana law that protects our cleanest waters.

The Supreme Court rightly rejected that strategy and invalidated the mine’s pollution permit. Modern mines cannot rely on decades-old pollution standards to degrade pristine streams on public lands. New mines must do better.

This is particularly true for those “Bad Actors” who have a history of this type of irresponsible behavior.

You might remember that the Montana Department of Environmental Quality is taking enforcement action against Hecla, and its CEO Phillips S. Baker, Jr., under the “Bad Actor” provisions of Montana’s mining law. Baker served as a top official for Pegasus Gold when it declared bankruptcy in 1998, leaving behind a toxic mess at the company’s Zortman-Landusky, Beal Mountain, and Basin Creek gold mines that has burdened Montana communities and taxpayers ever since.

State and federal agencies have already spent over $50 million in public funds at Zortman-Landusky alone, with an additional liability of $2-3 million every year for water treatment that will be required to deal with acid mine drainage forever.

Baker should not profit from new mines in Montana, through Hecla or any other company he runs, unless he reimburses the public for the costs of cleaning up the messes his former companies left behind.

In the past, it was common for companies to come to Montana and profit from mining our natural resources without cleaning up after themselves. Now we know better. Modern mines need to meetmmodern standards, not those from almost three decades ago.

The Supreme Court’s decision prevents Hecla from unnecessarily degrading Montana streams with mine pollution.

Clean water is essential for Montana and our way of life, especially in places like the Cabinets. 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.

Jim Nash is the former owner of Specialty Beams, a custom wood products supplier in Noxon. He is retired and lives in Sanders County.