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By the Chronicle Editorial Board

Conservation groups have been forced to go to court to get public records related to the Gov. Greg Gianforte administration’s decision to drop enforcement action against a mining executive whose former company has saddled Montana taxpayers with tens of millions of dollars in cleanup costs.

Since November, the Montana Environmental Information Center and Earthworks has been seeking records on an administration decision to drop legal claims against Phillips Baker Jr. and his firm, Hecla Mining Co.

Baker and Hecla have been pursuing a pair of mines in the Cabinet Mountains in Northwest Montana. Baker was chief financial officer for Pegasus Gold when it went bankrupt in 1998 leaving behind a nightmarish moonscape of a wasteland at the Zortman Landusky mine in North Central Montana. To date, taxpayers have footed a bill for more than $50 million to cleanup toxic waste at the site. And the cleanup is projected to cost $2 million a year for the foreseeable future.

The state Department of Environmental Quality took legal action against Baker and Hecla 2018 to recover those costs under Montana’s “bad actor” law. That law is aimed at holding mining companies and their executives accountable for a long history of leaving behind disastrous messes. The Gianforte administration dropped the action last July, citing the cost of the litigation. In the past Gianforte has been vocally pro-industry and critical of government agencies for being so slow in permitting the Cabinet Mountain mines.

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