BILLINGS – An Idaho mining company notified environmental regulators Tuesday that it was halting reclamation work at a closed silver and copper mine in northwest Montana, amid a legal fight with the state over cleanup expenses at other sites.
Hecla Mining Co. will evaluate the potential legal risks of continuing cleanup work at Troy Mine near Libby after the Montana Department of Environmental Quality sued the company’s CEO, Phillips S. Baker Jr., last month, according to the company’s general manager in Montana, Doug Stiles.
State officials blamed Hecla for the work stoppage while Republican lawmakers backed the company and said the state’s lawsuit was at fault.
The dispute underscores growing tensions over allegations by the state that Baker bears responsibility under Montana’s “bad actor law” for ongoing pollution at several mines owned by his former employer, Pegasus Mining.
The state has paid more than $35 million for cleanup at those sites after Pegasus went bankrupt. Officials want that money reimbursed before Hecla moves forward with plans for two new mines in the Libby area.
Hecla, which is based in Coeur d’Alene, argues that neither the company nor Baker is responsible for pollution left behind by Pegasus. The only connection between Hecla and Pegasus is Baker, who served as chief financial officer at Pegasus in the run up to its 1998 bankruptcy.
DEQ Director Tom Livers said that the lawsuit against Baker is unrelated to Hecla’s work at Troy.
“Hecla has a clear legal obligation to complete reclamation at this site in a timely manner regardless of pending legal action,” Livers said in an emailed response to questions from The Associated Press. “Despite this, they’ve chosen to make this decision (suspend work) and are tying it to the lawsuit against Baker.”
Work at Troy has cost about $6 million and is expected to take another two to three years, Stiles said. The state holds a $24.7 million reclamation bond to ensure work at the site is completed.
The Troy Mine opened in 1981 and shut down in 1993. It reopened in 2005, and closed permanently after Hecla bought the mine’s owner, Revett Mining Company, in 2015. The reclamation work includes covering 303 acres of tailings with topsoil, demolishing buildings and filling in mine portals.
Stiles suggested the company would resume work at Troy at some point in the future. But for now, the cleanup’s manager has been transferred to another Hecla site in Nevada and three remaining workers on-site will conduct maintenance duties, Stiles said.
“We’re not just abandoning any projects,” he said. “We’re going to stop until we get more clarity on the litigation.”
U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte and state Rep. Steve Gunderson of Libby urged resolution of the lawsuit so work at Troy can resume and Hecla can move forward on its proposed new mines, Rock Creek and Montanore. Both proposals have been held up for years by permitting delays.
“The people who have been waiting and anticipating these projects to come online for decades, all we see is obstructionism,” Gunderson said.
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