by Jeffrey Stiffarm, Kathi Slora, Jim Nash, Dave Lyman, and Debbie Lyman
After we read Jerry Bennett’s recent guest opinion, “Montana DEQ did the right thing on Hecla mining proposal” (Helena Independent Record, Dec. 7, 2021), we couldn’t help but wonder, “right for whom?” The Department of Environmental Quality’s decision was certainly not right for community members living on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. The Fort Belknap Indian Community is saddled with permanent surface and groundwater pollution due to the actions and inactions of then-vice president of Pegasus, and now CEO of Hecla, Phillips S. Baker, after Pegasus declared bankruptcy and left Montana with some of its worst environmental disasters of all time: Zortman-Landusky, Basin Creek and Beal Mountain.
But then again, Commissioner Bennett’s top political donors represent the mining industry, including the Montana mining industry and the out-of-state CEO of one of Hecla’s subsidiary companies.
The Gianforte DEQ’s refusal to enforce the “Bad Actor” law against Hecla and Hecla CEO Phillips Baker may be right for Commissioner Bennett, but it’s dead wrong for the rest of us.
In support of his claim that “Hecla has proven itself to be the kind of company that our local area and state should embrace,” Commissioner Bennett paints a rosy picture of Hecla’s track record, but the facts tell a different story. When Bennett talks of the “world-class reclamation” of the Troy Mine, he leaves out that prior to Troy Mine operations, Lake Creek had a water quality rating of “pristine” and “uniformly excellent,” but is now impaired due to pollution from the mine.
There’s a similar story with the Greens Creek Mine in Alaska. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Hecla has been in constant violation of environmental standards for the past three years, including for violations of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and Safe Drinking Water Act.
Hecla’s still-operational Lucky Friday Mine in Idaho presents the same storyline, with EPA compliance data showing Clean Water Act violations for 10 of the past 13 quarters, including numerous violations of pollution standards for lead and zinc, with eye-popping violations of some standards by 3,380%, 9803%, 11909%, and 42168%. Since 2019, Hecla’s Lucky Friday Mine has violated the Clean Water Act on over 120 days. That is no anomaly: from 2009 to 2014, Hecla had over 500 violations at Lucky Friday.
Hecla is clearly not on the right path.
Bennett expresses “confusion and bewilderment” that the state of Montana would want to hold Hecla “responsible for the past actions of their CEO.” Yet Baker is the president and CEO of Hecla. If Hecla does not take responsibility for the actions of its CEO, what responsibility will it take? If Hecla won’t take responsibility for Baker’s actions, and if Gov. Gianforte won’t require him to take responsibility, will Baker ever take responsibility for his legacy of environmental contamination?
What we find bewildering is that just a few years ago Gov. Gianforte sponsored a bill that successfully prevented mining on 30,000 acres of public land in the Paradise Valley. The Cabinet Mountains are equally spectacular, protected wilderness, and of deep historical and cultural importance to tribal people in Montana. Do not the people in and around the Cabinets deserve the same consideration and protection as the people in the Paradise Valley?
The past and ongoing actions of Hecla and Phillips Baker reveal a notorious past in which corporate greed trumped the protection of communities and the environment. Hard rock mining has only brought pollution, not long-term economic prosperity. Do we want for the Cabinet Mountains the same devastation as in the Silver Valley and Zortman-Landusky, Beal Mountain and Basin Creek? We think not.
Jeffrey Stiffarm is president of the Fort Belknap Indian Community. Kathi Slora and Jim Nash of Noxon represent Cabinet Resource Group. Dave and Debbie Lyman of Heron represent Rock Creek Alliance.
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