Hecla-DEQ tensions continue, now involve Troy mine

By Tracy McNew

 

Tensions continue between Hecla and DEQ after last week’s announcement that Hecla has cut back on reclamation activities at Troy mine.

The report of a halt in construction made news last week, but according to Bruce Vincent of the consulting firm, Environomics, “The Troy Mine, Inc. position remains one that is committed to fulfilling all the requirements of reclamation.”

Luke Russell, Hecla’s VP of External Affairs confirmed Bruce’s statement in an interview with The Montanian on Friday. Russell said that the company has advised both the state of Montana and the US Forest Service that they are continuing to do what’s required for reclamation which is scheduled to take place over a number of years.

Some staff remain onsite at the Troy mine, and much progress has been made. 290 of around 310 acres of tailings have been covered and 140 of them have been seeded, and $6 million has been spent to date, Russell said, but contractors onsite at the Troy mine have been reduced for now.

Hecla acquired and agreed to reacclimate the Troy mine as part of their acquisition of Revett and the Rock Creek sites in 2015.

Hecla’s CEO Phillip Baker has been labelled a “bad actor” under Montana’s Metal Mines Reclamation Act, and because of this, Russell said, “We need to have the uncertainty created by DEQ clarified.”

“The state has said that Hecla’s subsidiary companies are essentially Hecla, and that Hecla isn’t eligible for permits. We’re in court to clarify this and a hearing is scheduled for Sept. 17,” said Russell.

Troy Mine, Inc. is a Hecla subsidiary, and so are the proposed Rock Creek and Montanore mines so all three projects could be impacted.

Senator Daines and Representative Gianforte both released statements last week in support of Hecla.

“The Montanore and Rock Creek mining projects have been in development for decades. For the sake of Lincoln and Sanders counties and the good-paying Montana jobs these mines would create,” said Gianforte. “It’s time to resolve the litigation and get these projects back on track.”

Hecla completed acquisition of Klondex mines last month and now has three high-grade mines in Nevada. Some locals have expressed concern that the company’s legal battles in Montana could result in their shifting focus to Nevada, but Russell confirmand that Hecla remains committed to the Rock Creek and Montanore projects.

A note from DEQ Director Tom Livers about “bad actor” laws

Montana has a long and storied history of mining. Mining has brought great riches and economic progress to our state; it can be argued mining built this state and minerals from Montana fueled the development of our nation. It also left a legacy of pollution and cleanup we’re still addressing today.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality is entrusted with implementing and enforcing environmental laws enacted by the Legislature, one of those being the Metal Mines Reclamation Act. Similar to other states, Montana requires environmentally responsible design, operation and reclamation of mine sites. As head of DEQ, I feel it is important to speak directly to some of the concerns that have been raised about our enforcement of the “bad actor” provision of the Metal Mines Act.

The so-called “bad actor” provision became law in 1989 and was revised in the aftermath of the Pegasus Gold bankruptcy, which left Montana with huge unmet reclamation obligations at Zortman-Landusky, Beal Mountain, and Basin Creek mine sites. Though Pegasus Gold reaped a substantial profit from these mines before abandoning them and declaring bankruptcy, the unmet reclamation costs and ongoing water treatment expenses have been, and continue to be, paid by public funds from the State of Montana and the federal government. Some cleanup expenses, like water treatment, will cost millions of dollars every year in perpetuity.

During the years that Pegasus Gold operated these mines, it repeatedly identified Phillips S. Baker as one of its principals. Mr. Baker now works for a different company, Hecla Mining. The Montana Metal Mines Act specifically prevents the principals of “bad actor” mining companies from returning to our state to mine, and to direct mining, without first squaring up on unmet costs.

Up until this week’s suspension of reclamation work at the Troy mine, DEQ’s only concern with Hecla has been its employment of Mr. Baker due to his standing under the Metal Mines Act. We have taken no action to suspend or revoke permits tied to Hecla’s proposed developments at the Rock Creek and Montanore sites. In fact, DEQ approved renewal of the exploration licenses for each in November 2017 and May 2018, respectively.

DEQ and Hecla worked together in 2017 and through the spring of 2018 to amend the reclamation plan for Troy to enable summer 2018 construction. Hecla felt this was necessary to meet its legal deadline of completing reclamation by June of 2021. DEQ’s action against Mr. Baker should have no impact on reclamation operations at Troy. When Hecla purchased Revett Mining, Inc., it knowingly assumed the obligation for reclaiming the Troy Mine. Despite this, Hecla has recently chosen a course of action that puts in jeopardy the company’s ability to meet reclamation deadlines and are tying this decision to DEQ’s lawsuit against Mr. Baker. Because of Montana’s history with companies such as Pegasus, DEQ is concerned when a company takes action, even temporarily, to step away from its legal obligation to reclaim a mine site.

Hecla and others maintain DEQ is misapplying a well-intentioned law. After spending considerable time analyzing this, I disagree with that characterization. Regardless, the way to resolve a dispute of this importance, where opposing views are strongly held, is in court. We want to resolve this and move forward. DEQ has proposed to Hecla that we mutually forgo procedural wrangling and ask the court to move straight to resolving the primary issue: Does the bad actor provision bar Mr. Baker from mining in Montana? Once the court makes a determination on this issue, it will be up to Hecla and DEQ to pursue a course of action in line with that ruling. We have had no response from either the company or Mr. Baker on our request to expedite this. In the interim, DEQ has been unequivocally clear that Hecla may proceed with the development and exploration work planned for Rock Creek and Montanore and with reclamation work at Troy.

DEQ recognizes that Hecla’s track record of mine operations and reclamation has earned the company a favorable reputation for commitments to safety and to minimizing environmental impacts from mining. Notwithstanding this reputation, DEQ has an obligation to enforce Montana law to protect the interests of Montana’s citizens.

 

Tom Livers, Director of the Montana Departm