The Montana Department of Environmental Quality last week invoked the power given it by the Legislature to hold mining companies and executives accountable when the state and its citizens are left holding the bag.
Hecla Mining Co. in 2001 appointed its current president, Phillips Baker Jr., as a director of the firm, despite the fact that he was an executive at the failed Pegasus Gold, which left several large-scale environmental messes behind in Montana when it declared bankruptcy in 1998.
So DEQ last week told Hecla that until it pays for the necessary work or otherwise resolves Pegasus' violations, its plans for the Montanore mine near Libby and the Rock Creek mine near Noxon will be put on hold.
We see merit in both of the mines Hecla is proposing. But Hecla knew the risks in bringing on someone like Phillips Baker Jr., former Pegasus executive who is now Hecla's president.
Baker may be proficient as a mining executive — indeed, he's chairman of the National Mining Association — but part of mining these days is taking responsibility for the environmental damage you cause. Pegasus left the federal and state governments with the well-documented Zortman-Landusky nightmare when it went bankrupt in 1998. Closer to home, both the Beal Mountain mine at the headwaters of German Gulch here in Butte-Silver Bow County and the Basin Creek mine near Boulder represent major liabilities to the state, which got left with those headaches as well.
First of all, we hope and trust Hecla can negotiate a settlement with the state that allows its current projects to go forward responsibly.
Second, we're holding our applause for DEQ since the agency's own bad actions have left us more of a mess right here in Butte than we should have to accept.
We're talking about the Montana Pole Plant site, where DEQ for many years led concerned Butte citizens to believe that its "bioremediation" of the site was working. Only recently was it made clear to Butte that indeed the long treatment procedure was not effective in cleaning up the dioxin on the site. DEQ's solution? Bury it on the site and cap it — leaving a longterm problem.
Perhaps if DEQ had acted with the dispatch on this site that it did on a similar site near Bozeman — where it quickly moved to bury and cap the dioxin — it might be viewed differently. But after so much time has passed, we believe it's fair to expect DEQ to remove the dioxin completely and transport it to a repository designed to handle such wastes.
Until then, we see DEQ acting every bit as badly as the "bad actor" it penalized last week.