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Hecla Mining Permit Violates Environmental Regulations, Judge Rules

The Cabinet Mountains as seen from Highway 56 near Noxon, MT.
U.S. Forest Service Northern Region (PD)
The Cabinet Mountains as seen from Highway 56 near Noxon, MT.

The proposed Montanore copper and silver mine in the Cabinet Mountains has experienced another setback. A state district court judge found Friday that a state-issued water quality permit violated state and federal water quality regulations.

Judge Kathy Seeley’s July 24 decision found that the state Department of Environmental Quality in 2014 arbitrarily renewed a water quality permit for Hecla Mining Company’s Montanore mining site, violating the federal Clean Water Act and the Montana Water Quality Act.

Earthjustice staff attorney Katherine O’Brien represented environmental groups in the case.

“In basic terms, the court found that DEQ failed to establish mandatory restrictions on numerous contaminants that the mine would discharge, including those metals and other pollutants that are harmful to native trout," O'Brien said.  

O’Brien also argued in the case that DEQ approved the permit’s renewal based on water quality standards from when it was first issued in 1992, something Judge Seely agreed with. Hecla VP of external affairs Luke Russell says the company maintains that DEQ was right to issue the permit.

"This was the renewal of a permit that was first issued in 1997, renewed in 2006 and again in 2015.," Russell said. "The permitted limits in that 2015 permit were the most stringent of any permit received to the site up to that time.”

DEQ and Hecla say they are reviewing the court’s decision. It’s unclear whether either will appeal.

Earthjustice’s apparent victory in this case follows another win in 2017, when Hecla’s federal permits for the Montanore site were thrown out under the Endangered Species Act.

Earthjustice’s O’Brien is also leading ongoing litigation seeking to declare Hecla CEO Philips Baker a bad actor in the state for his role in a failed cleanup of a central Montana goldmine in the ‘90s.

Such a declaration would prevent Baker or Hecla from receiving a mining permit in the state.

Aaron graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism in 2015 after interning at Minnesota Public Radio. He landed his first reporting gig in Wrangell, Alaska where he enjoyed the remote Alaskan lifestyle and eventually moved back to the road system as the KBBI News Director in Homer, Alaska. He joined the MTPR team in 2019. Aaron now reports on all things in northwest Montana and statewide health care.
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