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Hecla Mining Co. Violated 'Bad Actor' Law, State Regulators Say

The Cabinet Mountains as seen from Highway 56 near Noxon, MT.
U.S. Forest Service Northern Region (PD)
The Cabinet Mountains as seen from Highway 56 near Noxon, MT.

Hecla Mining Co. Violated 'Bad Actor' Law, State Regulators Say

Montana regulators announced today that an Idaho mining company hoping to develop two mines in northwest Montana has violated state law; an allegation the company denies.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality accuse Hecla Mining company and its president of violating the state’s "bad actor" law.

"The bad actor provision is a piece of law in Montana’s Metal Mines Reclamation Act,” DEQ Director Tom Livers said. “Basically it says that someone who fails to adequately reclaim mine sites is prevented from new mining or exploration in Montana until they meet their old cleanup obligations and rectify conditions at former sites."

Hecla wants to develop two silver and copper mines in northwest Montana, both under the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness.

DEQ says the Coeur d’Alene-based company can now pursue those projects in one of two ways: square up a $32 million tab with Montana for pollution cleanup costs at several former mining sites, or prove Hecla’s president, Phillips Baker, is not, and will not be involved in Montana mining projects.

DEQ Director Tom Livers explained Baker’s position.

“(He) served as chief financial officer of Pegasus Gold Corporation and was vice-president and director of Zortman mining, the Pegasus subsidiary that operated the Zortman-Landusky mine,” Livers said.

Pegasus went bankrupt in 1998. State agencies then had to pony up millions to clean up contaminants at three separate sites.

“DEQ did the right thing here,” Mary Costello said.

Costello is executive director of the Rock Creek Alliance and a coordinator for Save our Cabinets; groups opposing development of the Rock Creek Mine near Noxon and the Montanore mine near Libby.

Those groups are part of an environmental coalition that since last year urged DEQ to enforce Montana’s "bad actor" law against Hecla.

"Look who Hecla has chosen as their CEO. He (Baker) is at the highest level of management with Hecla Mining. Maybe it is guilt by association, but I personally don’t see a problem with that. Phillips Baker has a lot of influence. As CEO, he’s going to be guiding Hecla and the decisions that they make, and I don’t have any confidence that things would be done any differently by Hecla under Phillips Baker’s management,” Costello said.

Hecla officials did not respond to Montana Public Radio’s interview requests but told the Associated Press that the company denies any responsibility for Pegasus’ actions and said the company intends to challenge the alleged "bad actor" violations.

DEQ Director Tom Livers says the state of Montana has enjoyed a solid working relationship with Hecla, adding the company has a good track record with both safety and minimizing environmental impacts from mining. But he adds that the "bad actor" notification is an appropriate response given the circumstances.

Hecla and its President, Phillips Baker have 30 days to declare their intention to resolve the matter.

Copyright 2020 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Edward O'Brien is Montana Public Radio's Associate News Director.