Montana drops ‘bad actor’ claim against Hecla mine executive

Friday, July 16, 2021

HELENA (AP) — Environmental regulators have filed a motion to dismiss a legal case that sought to block the president of an Idaho-based company from being involved in proposed mines in northwestern Montana under a state law that punishes companies and their executives who don’t clean up mining pollution.

The filing on Wednesday drew criticism from environmental groups that supported the “bad actor” sanctions being sought against Hecla Mining Co. President and CEO Phillips Baker Jr.

In 2018, the Department of Environmental Quality sought to have Baker removed from two silver and copper mining projects Hecla proposed near and beneath the Cabinet Mountains near Libby and Noxon. Baker was the vice president and chief financial officer of Pegasus Gold, which went bankrupt in 1998 before cleaning up pollution from three gold mines, including the Zortman-Landusky Mine near the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. The state and federal governments have spent more than $50 million in cleanup costs and water treatment will continue in perpetuity, officials have said.

DEQ’s dismissal of the enforcement action ignores its responsibility to enforce the bad actor law and “prioritizes mining executives over Montanans,” Andy Werk Jr., president of the Fort Belknap Indian Community, said in a statement.

“Montana’s mining laws only serve as an effective deterrent if they are enforced,” Andrew Gorder, legal director for the Clark Fork Coalition, said in a statement. “The ‘bad actor’ law was passed in the wake of Pegasus’ bankruptcy and was clearly intended to hold mining executives accountable for their previous messes. If DEQ won’t enforce the law against Pegasus’ former vice president and CFO, then the law isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.”

Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte campaigned last year on a “Montana Comeback Plan,” which, in part, called for bringing new leadership to the DEQ and streamlining permitting processes “to eliminate needless delays.”

In the motion to dismiss the case, the DEQ said Gianforte’s election and new leadership at the agency prompted a review of the case. The agency determined there were still several procedural hurdles to overcome that could potentially risk its goal of preventing bad actors from operating in the state, according to the motion, which was filed in District Court in Helena.