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Judge Sides With Montana In Mining Pollution Case

Graphic: Montana news from Montana Public Radio

MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) — A Montana judge has sided with state environmental regulators who are using a law that provides protection from repeat polluters against an Idaho-based mining company and its chief executive.

State District Court Judge Mike Menahan in Helena said in a recent ruling that Hecla Mining Company and Chief Executive Officer Phillips Baker, Jr. are subject to the state's “bad actor” law that blocks individuals and companies who don’t clean up their old mines from starting new ones.

The ruling means the court has jurisdiction over the company and Baker, but it did not address the merits of the case.

Baker was former chief financial officer at Pegasus Mining, which went bankrupt in 1998 and saddled the state and federal government with more than $50 million in pollution cleanup costs from three bankrupt mines, including the Zortman-Landusky mine near the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.

Montana is one of many states with bad actor statues that let state environmental agencies consider a company or individual’s environmental record in deciding whether to grant permits.

It was passed by the Montana Legislature in 1989 and expanded in 2001 to apply to company executives. The law has been enforced once before, in 2008, in a case that did not involve a major project like the ones Hecla is pursuing at the Rock Creek Mine near Noxon and the Montanore Mine near Libby, according to state officials.

The two copper and silver mines would tunnel beneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness. They’ve been stalled for years as environmentalists repeatedly sued over concerns the mines would harm area rivers and wildlife including bull trout and grizzly bears.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality filed a bad actor lawsuit against Hecla and Baker in 2018 over the Pegasus damages, saying the company could have to reimburse the state for past pollution cleanups if it wants to pursue the new mines.

The suit is supported by the Fort Belknap Indian Community, environmental organizations and a group of traditionalists from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

Hecla spokesperson Luke Russell said Monday the company would continue to press its case that the law was being misapplied because Hecla was never involved with the Pegasus mines and Baker left Pegasus before it forfeited its cleanup bond.

“We think a clean reading is that this statute does not apply,” he said.

Baker claimed the court didn't have jurisdiction because he didn’t have “sufficient contacts with Montana,” other than his former management position with Pegasus Gold.

But Menahan ruled that Baker’s participation in Hecla’s two mine proposals in the state gave the court jurisdiction over him. The judge also said it was “only rational” that Hecla be subject to the jurisdiction of Montana courts since it is operating in the state.

A federal judge in April struck down the government’s approval of the first phase of the Rock Creek Mine. A final decision is pending on the Montanore Mine.

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