Opinion

Webb Scott Brown: DEQ’s Hecla decision stymies responsible economic development

Our family ranch near Trout Creek at one time included an old mine off the southern end of Goat Peak Ridge. The prospectors at the time never “struck it rich.” But they were close. About a mile to the northwest, the Treasure State could strike it rich for all of Big Sky Country off that same vein – if state government will act responsibly.

The Rock Creek and Montanore mining projects are nearing completion of a decades-long environmental permitting process. At full operations, they could provide more than 600 jobs for a region of Montana that has led the state in unemployment and poverty since the collapse of the federal timber harvest.

My hometown is excited about the prospects of modern mining providing an economic foundation for our children and a healthy environment. We are excited that Hecla Mining, the oldest mining company in North America, is prepared to operate them.

I absolutely believe in the need to balance economic development with environmental protection. The Montana Chamber’s annual “Business-Base” (B-Base) poll of Montanans shows strong support of natural resource management and believe that such operations can occur without compromising our environment. The suggestion that one must choose between the economy and the environment is a false narrative.

Montana has in place policies necessary to guarantee environmental stewardship. Sadly, one policy that was constructed with good intentions is currently being misused by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. The “bad actor” policy was designed to protect the state from individuals who have engaged in mining in Montana but have reneged on their responsibility to remediate their projects.

Unfortunately, the DEQ has designated Phillip Baker, current CEO of Hecla Mining, as one of those “bad actors.” Baker was a 34-year-old certified public accountant working as chief financial officer for Pegasus Gold some twenty years ago, a position that granted him no direct authority over the company’s mining operations. Pegasus later filed for bankruptcy and the state used the Pegasus reclamation bond to clean up their mining sites. Today, the state claims that Hecla Mining cannot be granted a permit to mine in Montana since they now employ Baker, even though he left Pegasus before it went bankrupt. This is ridiculous!

Hecla Mining has successfully operated for 127 years and has never walked away from a single project nor environmental responsibility as a mine operator. They are one of the most proven, experienced and responsible parties to develop the Montanore and Rock Creek ore deposits.

Ironically, when the DEQ sent Hecla their “violation” notice, they stated that Hecla has been a good corporate partner and applauded their long record of environmental stewardship. That same letter, however, indicated that we don’t want them and their CEO in our state.

This is just wrong.

If Phil Baker were the entity that had earlier failed in our state and it was Phil Baker that was once again applying for permits to operate here, then the statute should apply. However, it is Hecla Mining, not Phil Baker, that is applying for permits to operate the mines Northwest Montana so desperately wants and needs. Hecla Mining has never had anything to do with the long-defunct Pegasus Mining and should not be held hostage by that company’s history.

Hecla is already contributing heavily in all the area’s communities – as good corporate citizens do. We feel lucky to have them as part of Montana’s future. It is my hope that this absurd decision is dismissed, and Hecla is given the green light to develop what my predecessors knew was there: the treasure in the Treasure State.

Webb Scott Brown is the president/CEO of the Montana Chamber of Commerce and grew up in Trout Creek, Montana.