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Montana seeks judge’s order to ban Hecla CEO

Montana environmental regulators asked a judge on June 25 to ban the head of a giant mining company from exploring or opening any new mines in the state until he is no longer in violation of Montana’s “bad actor” law.

The state Department of Environmental Quality’s lawsuit seeks a court order that upholds its own March ruling that Hecla Mining Co. CEO Phillips S. Baker Jr. violated the state law that forbids companies and their principal officers who don’t pay for the cleanup of old mines from starting new ones.

“If you abandon your reclamation responsibilities, you need to complete them before you can explore or mine again in this state,” said DEQ Director Tom Livers. “The responsibility to reclaim goes both to companies and to the people who control them.”

Baker was chief financial officer of Pegasus Mining, whose 1998 bankruptcy has cost the state about $35 million in pollution cleanup costs. The cleanup of Pegasus’ Zortman-Landusky gold mine near the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in north-central Montana is also expected to have a permanent future cost of $2 million a year to treat waterways polluted by the mine’s cyanide, arsenic and other contamination.

Now Baker is at the helm of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho-based Hecla, which is proposing two silver and copper mines in northwestern Montana. Hecla has been issued exploration permits for those proposed mines in the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, though the future of those mines may be determined by the DEQ’s court case.

Livers stressed that the lawsuit seeks a judge’s ruling against Baker as an individual, and not Hecla as a company. But Livers said in a letter June 25 to Hecla’s attorney the DEQ could take action against the company if a judge rules that Baker is barred from exploration and mining activities in Montana.

Livers said Baker must repay the state’s cleanup costs of the Pegasus mines or else show that no company under his control is involved in mining or exploration activities in the state.

Hecla spokesman Luke Russell did not immediately return phone and email messages on June 25. The company previously filed its own lawsuit against the DEQ to ask a judge to overturn the state agency’s “bad actor” designation against Baker.

Livers and the DEQ have come under pressure from some state lawmakers for singling out Baker, who is also the chairman of the National Mining Association.

“We follow the law and we follow the science,” Livers said. “We recognize that this decision is unpopular in some corners, but we felt that this is the action the law requires.”

The DEQ’s lawsuit was filed in Helena District Court as a complaint and a counterclaim to Hecla’s court case.

This story was updated throughout at 4:40 on June 25.

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