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Montana tribes and environmental groups sue state for issuing mining permits to company with ties to past pollution

Z-L 9-2021 Landusky mine 2.jpg
The site of the former Zortman Landusky mine near Fort Belknap.

Two Montana tribes, together with several environmental groups, are suing the state for not adhering to environmental standards outlined in the state constitution.

The Fort Belknap community and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and its director, Chris Dorrington, alleging the agency is not adequately enforcing a “bad actor” law pertaining to new mining permits.

The plaintiffs say Pegasus Gold Incorporated owes the state millions of dollars for cleanup of the Zortman-Landusky mines south of Fort Belknap. The mines were abandoned after Pegasus Gold Incorporated filed for bankruptcy in 1998 and are undergoing a reclamation process, including ongoing water treatment.

"Pegasus' actions burdened the public with a legacy of toxic contamination of invaluable water resources, vital fisheries, and sites sacred to the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Tribes of the Fort Belknap Indian Community," the lawsuit reads.

The AP reports the state earlier this year dropped a lawsuit against Phillips S. Baker, Pegasus' former president, that would have barred him from pursuing two new operations in Montana with the Hecla Mining Company because of the existing pollution.

“What this [lawsuit] would do is preclude the state of Montana from issuing permits, until Hecla and its CEO ... are in compliance with the bad actor law,” said Bonnie Gerstring with Earthworks.

The lawsuit also cites Montana’s constitution, which invokes the “right to a clean and healthful environment.”

Taylar Stagner covers tribal affairs for Yellowstone Public Radio.