Hecla forging ahead with Northwest Montana mines
| June 16, 2021 12:00 AM
Officials with an Idaho-based mining company developing two large copper and silver mines in Northwest Montana said they are undeterred by a recent ruling that could let the state label its CEO a "bad actor" because of a failed mine cleanup more than two decades ago in a different part of the state.
Having CEO Phillips S. Baker labeled a "bad actor" could derail Hecla Mining Co.'s efforts to develop the Rock Creek and Montanore mines, two projects in Lincoln and Sanders counties that have been in the works for decades. One reason the company might not be worried is that the new occupant of the governor's mansion in Helena has been a vocal proponent of the projects.
The projects were first proposed by different companies in the early 1980s. Mining officials have said that together the two mines beneath the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness could produce more than 500 million ounces of silver and 4 billion pounds of copper, making them one of the largest untapped deposits of either mineral in the world.
Both projects have been bogged down in the state and federal permitting process for decades, shepherded by two small mining companies, including one that ran the now-shuttered Troy Mine. That extended process frustrated local officials, who said the mines could provide much needed employment in one of the most economically depressed regions of the state.
In Libby, signs declaring "We Support Montanore" are common in storefront windows.
IN 2015, local officials got a new dose of optimism when Coeur d'Alene-based Hecla purchased both projects. Hecla was founded in 1891 and presently operates mines in Idaho, Alaska and Quebec.
If any company could get Rock Creek and Montanore operational, local officials thought, it was Hecla. But those hopes were discouraged in 2018 when the Montana Department of Environmental Quality announced Hecla and its CEO had violated the state's mining laws and thus could not open either mine until the company paid $32 million in restitution.
At the core of the state's argument is Baker's involvement with the Pegasus Gold Corp., which went bankrupt in 1998 and left the state on the hook for a $32 million reclamation effort at three mining sites in the Little Rocky Mountains south of the Fort Belknap Reservation.
Montana's "bad actor" mining law was passed in the 1980s and is designed to hold companies that fail to clean up polluted mine sites responsible. The law has been used sparingly since it was passed, and the decision to apply it to Baker, who was a vice president at Pegasus, was celebrated by environmental groups.
"Historically, mining companies have gotten away with leaving unreclaimed mine sites for taxpayers to clean up, some of which will require treatment for decades to come," said Mary Costello, executive director of the Rock Creek Alliance, a group established in 1996 to oppose the Rock Creek Mine. "That's why it's so important that Montana's bad actor law, which was passed with bipartisan support, is enforced. This law ensures that mining executives are held accountable to Montana's taxpayers so that abandoned toxic mine sites remain a thing of the past."
HECLA COUNTERS that Baker is innocent and had already left Pegasus when it went bankrupt and left the state with the cleanup bill. Not long after DEQ tried to label Baker a "bad actor," Hecla sued. In May, Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Mike Menahan ruled that DEQ had the authority to apply the "bad actor" label to Baker, but did not rule on the merits of the case.
"The laws we have on the books to protect clean water and assure that mining sites are fully reclaimed are only going to be effective if bad actors are held accountable and the law is adequately enforced," said Derf Johnson, Clean Water Program Director with the Montana Environmental Information Center. "We are incredibly heartened to see the court's order, and now the DEQ can proceed with fully prosecuting this case on the merits."
It's unclear if DEQ will continue to prosecute the case. In a statement to Montana Free Press, spokesperson Moira Davin said the agency is reviewing the decision and "assessing the resources we have available to pursue next steps."
Gov. Greg Gianforte has spoken favorably of the proposed mines in the past, and last year held a campaign event at Hecla's offices in Libby. During that event he criticized state and federal officials for how long it has taken to get the two mines permitted.
Although state and federal agencies have issued permits for the mines in the past, they have been challenged in court multiple times.
"I believe that we can develop our natural resources while protecting the environment and, where there has been a problem, like there has been in Libby, [we've] got to work to clean it up," Gianforte said at Hecla's offices last July, referencing the massive Superfund cleanup resulting from the W.R. Grace & Co. asbestos mine that has sickened and killed residents. During that same event, he called DEQ and the Montana Department of Natural Resources "project prevention departments."
A spokesperson for Gianforte directed all questions about Hecla and the "bad actor" case to DEQ.
EVEN IF the state continues with its effort to label Baker a "bad actor," Hecla officials said, they are confident they will be victorious in court and will continue to push the projects forward.
Spokesperson Luke Russell said Rock Creek and Montanore are good projects that can provide the copper and silver needed to power a greener, more environmentally friendly economy. Mining officials note that copper and silver are necessary to produce electric vehicles and wind turbines.
Over the years, environmental groups have raised concerns about how two expansive copper and silver mines beneath a federally designated wilderness area might impact water and wildlife on the surface. Opponents said that either mine could permanently damage the area.
But Hecla officials counter that copper and silver can be mined responsibly and point to the nearby Troy Mine, which was closed by Hecla's predecessor, Revett Mining Co., in 2015 when demand for copper plummeted, as an example of what Montanore and Rock Creek would look like.
Russell said Hecla has completed most of its reclamation work at that site, including covering a 300-acre tailings impoundment with topsoil, and is now working on demolishing buildings. Russell said eventually it will be hard to tell there was once a mine at the site at all.
"It's a great example of what modern mining can be," he said.