The Governor, the Mining Company and the Future of a Montana Wilderness

Photograph Source: Gage Skidmore – CC BY-SA 2.0

One might credibly think that someone running in the Democratic primary to be the party’s presidential nominee might, just might, want to be on the right side of the pressing environmental issues of the day. But last week Governor Steve Bullock and his Department of Environmental Quality sided with a disreputable “bad actor” mining company that wants to drill and blast for copper and silver under the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness instead of protecting the wilderness and its 60 lakes and abundant streams.

At issue is a district court ruling that found the project cannot proceed unless Montanore Minerals Corp. gets a new and updated water quality discharge permit. In their successful lawsuit a number of Montana environmental groups argued that using 27-year-old data didn’t meet the higher standards for pollutant discharges — nor provide protection for the spawning streams used by bull trout, which were listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in 1998. Moreover, as noted in an excellent article outlining the long and twisted history of the mine’s owners and operators, the prior permit was issued to a different company, Noranda Minerals, for exploration, not operation, and was only re-issued for reclamation activities, not ongoing mining.

It’s really hard to figure out why Bullock thinks it would be a good idea to discharge a host of contaminants including copper, manganese, zinc, ammonia and sediments into the pristine streams draining the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness when bull trout require the cleanest and coldest water to survive — let alone recover in numbers sufficient to remove them from the Endangered Species Act list.

Moreover, there are significant concerns that the mining activities beneath the wilderness could actually result in its lakes and streams being drained irreversibly into the mine tunnels. For anyone who has spent time in the Cabinets, this is very real, not theoretical, concern.

As a good example take St. Paul Lake, which sits about four miles into the wilderness above the East Fork of the Bull River. Although surrounded by a dozen beautiful waterfalls that drain into the lake’s basin, its water level can and does fall precipitously. Then consider that there’s no surface water outlet from the lake and it becomes rather obvious that it is, in fact, draining down through the tilted strata of the Cabinet Mountains, a name given them by early French-Canadian trappers and explorers who thought they looked like cabinets.

Now think of the blasting and drilling being done by a mining company whose parent corporation, Hecla Mining Co., is being sued by the state as a “bad actor” and prohibited by law from conducting further mining operations. Hecla is headed by Phillip S. Baker, Jr., the former a top financial officer of Pegasus Gold, which went bankrupt in the ’90s. But it left Montanans with the tab for remediation at several mines such as the Zortmann-Landusky complex, which have already cost Montanans $35 million and will require at least $2 million in pollution treatment in perpetuity. Bad actor indeed!

As the old Woody Guthrie song goes, “Which side are you on, boys, which side are you on? Are you part of the solution or part of the con?” Bullock already scored the worst of any of the presidential candidates on environmental rankings due to his positions on coal and the Keystone XL pipeline. When you add this new travesty to that dismal record — and it will become known nationally — it’s obvious why he will not be the Democrat’s candidate in 2020 nor should ever be considered to hold an environmentally sensitive cabinet-level post.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.