BILLINGS – The head of Hecla Mining Co. said Friday that Montana officials appeared to be seeking to delay two mines proposed for a remote wilderness area by designating him a “bad actor” because of past pollution at other sites.
President Phillips S. Baker Jr. is former vice president and chief financial officer for Pegasus Mining, which went bankrupt in 1998, leaving taxpayers to pay for costly pollution cleanups that included the Zortman-Landusky gold mine.
Montana regulators said last week that Hecla or Baker could have to reimburse more than $30 million in cleanup costs before it can proceed with two silver and copper mines beneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness.
The claim is based on Montana’s so-called bad actor law that blocks individuals and companies that do not reclaim or pay for the reclamation of old mines from starting new ones.
Baker is the current chairman of the industry’s leading trade group, the National Mining Association.
In his first interview since the bad actor allegations were announced, Baker told the Associated Press he was never contacted directly by Montana Department of Environmental officials about the matter before violation letters were issued March 20.
“There’s no substance in the claim that’s being made under this bad actor provision. It seems to be designed really to delay those projects,” he said. “They never sent me a letter, they never said what are the facts here. There’s not been any due process whatsoever.”
Montana Department of Environmental Quality spokeswoman Jenifer Garcin said Hecla was put on notice last November that the agency was looking into the matter. The violation letters resulted from a “long and deliberative process,” she said, adding that Hecla and Baker still can provide additional information before the state takes further action.
“The state has every expectation that Hecla will come into compliance with Montana law and exploration activities will proceed accordingly,” Garcin said.
Hecla, based in Coeur d’Alene, has filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s allegations in Montana District Court in Lincoln County. Judge Matthew Cuffe on Monday rejected the company’s bid for a temporary restraining order against the state.
Hecla’s two mine proposals – the Rock Creek project near Noxon and the Montanore project near Libby – would employ about 300 people each. They’re proposed for a part Montana that has suffered economically in recent years as other mines closed and the timber industry declined.
The new projects have received strong support from leading Republicans including U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a former Montana congressman.
Environmentalists have said the new mines could pollute area waterways and harm species including grizzly bears and bull trout.
Baker told AP that the mining industry is more cautious about its impacts than in the past and that Hecla has a good environmental record.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter