The Governor Who Likes Bad Actors and Toxic Mines

Photograph Source: Greg Gianforte’s jail booking mugshot – Public Domain

Montana’s Republican governor, Greg Gianforte, has decided to ignore a court order, the Montana Constitution, and the state’s “bad actor” law intended to prevent mining executives who have left environmental damages behind from receiving new mining permits. Even worse, his decision is intended to benefit extremely “bad actor” CEO Phillip C. Baker to allow him to operate yet another environmentally risky mine, this one under the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness Area.

Baker’s trail is a Montana environmental horror story. He was a top executive in the Pegasus Gold Corp. that developed a number of mines in Montana using the open-pit cyanide heap-leach process to pull gold from low-content rock. The process has left the state with very serious environmental problems, including “treatment in perpetuity” at numerous mine sites, many of which are now federal Superfund sites.

The damage to the environment — and enormous cleanup costs —  from cyanide heap-leach mining was so extreme that Montanans outlawed the process by citizen initiative in 1998. When the mining industry tried to overturn the ban in 2004 voters overwhelmingly rejected those efforts.

To make the long and ugly story shorter, when Pegasus Gold declared bankruptcy it left the state with what’s turning out to be hundreds of millions of dollars in reclamation costs in the last 30 years — and millions more to come as difficult “reclamation” efforts and “treatment in perpetuity” continue.

The list of the damage left behind by Baker and Pegasus is incredible. The Zortman Landusky Mine Superfund site in the Little Rockies has poisoned the water source for the Fort Belknap Tribe and cost the state and federal government more than $83 million dollars in on-going reclamation costs.

Then there’s the Basin Creek Mine Superfund site at $6-10 million so far. The Beal Mountain Mine Superfund site at $25 million so far, $40 million projected final cost and millions annually for “treatment in perpetuity.” And the Montana Tunnels Mine Superfund site at $16.8 million, where the high wall collapse threatens to destroy Clancy Creek.
Obviously, Mr. Baker should never be allowed to operate another mine in Montana — which is exactly why the “bad actor” law exists. Yet, for some reason Gov. Gianforte doesn’t seem to see it that way.

When the Montana Environmental Information Center filed a request for records on the state’s communications with Baker, Gianforte refused, then ignored a court order to produce those records, and is now appealing the order.

Certainly the governor can read — and there’s no ambiguity whatsoever in Montana’s Constitution. Art. II, Declaration of Rights, Sec. 9 Right to know. “No person shall be deprived of the right to examine documents or to observe the deliberations of all public bodies or agencies of state government and its subdivisions, except in cases in which the demand for individual privacy clearly exceeds the merits of public disclosure.”
Tough to see where “individual privacy” can possibly “exceed the merits of public disclosure” in Baker’s case. His trail of Superfund Site level environmental disasters is proof enough for why the public should know what he’s up to with the governor and state agencies.
Likewise, one might think Attorney General Austin Knudsen, a former Speaker of the House, would have more respect for the law and constitution — and inform the governor that refusing to provide the records violates Montana’s Constitution.

They say “the once-burnt child fears the fire.” Montana has not just been burnt, but nearly immolated by Mr. Baker’s mining disasters and the on-going costs of reclamation. Put bluntly, Gov. Gianforte is dead wrong to allow this “bad actor” to burn our state, our people, and our environment ever again.

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