By David Murray, Great Falls Tribune
Officials representing the tribes of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation are continuing their efforts to block any potential that gold mining operations will return to the Little Rocky Mountains; lands considered sacred to the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre peoples.
On May 1 the tribes issued a news release alleging that a Bozeman-based mining company that is seeking to dig a exploratory test trench on the site of one of Montana’s most notorious gold mining operations is not legally authorized to do business in the state.
“It is extremely troubling that steps toward renewed mining are being approved when this company cannot really be held accountable in Montana, because it has no registered agent and because it should not be doing business here at all,” said Andrew Werk Jr., President of the Fort Belknap Indian Community.
Werk asserted that Blue Arc LLC, the Bozeman-based company which has applied to dig the 0.36-acre test trench, is not registered with the Secretary of State’s Office and is therefore not authorized to do business in Montana. A search of state records revealed that Blue Arc did register with the state in August 2013 as a foreign limited liability company with headquarters in Minneapolis. Their registration became inactive in November 2017 after it lapsed and was not renewed.
“Without being registered and having a registered agent in Montana, Blue Arc cannot be readily taken to court in the event that it causes further pollution or damages the reclamation that has already been done to the mines,” Werk said.
Toxic legacy of mining in Little Rockies
The Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes have adamantly opposed commercial mining in the Little Rocky Mountains, which stand at the southern terminus of the Fort Belknap Reservation, since closure of the Pegasus Gold mining operation in 1996.
Pegasus Gold Corp., through a subsidiary called Zortman Mining Inc., operated an open-pit cyanide heap leach gold processing operation on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands in the Little Rockies from 1979 to 1996. Over 17 years, 2.5 million ounces of gold was extracted by Pegasus Gold using multiple cyanide heap leach pads.
The operation created hundreds of high wage jobs and yielded an estimated $875 million in revenues, but when Pegasus declared bankruptcy in early 1998 the company left behind a toxic legacy of acid mine waste that continues to pollute streams flowing onto the reservation to this day. Taxpayers were saddled with the costs of cleaning up the mess.
As of 2018, state and federal agencies had already poured close to $100 million into reclamation of the 1,200-acre abandoned Pegasus mines site. BLM predicts that continued treatment of the area’s ground water, which is laced with heavy metals, nitrates, selenium and cyanide will remain necessary well into the next century. The ongoing cost to taxpayers now rests at around $2 million to $2.5 million per year.
The expensive clean-up effort added weight to a 1998 voter initiative that banned cyanide heap leach processing in Montana. That and a substantial increase in the total value of reclamation bonds hard rock mining companies must post prior to obtaining an operations permit means that it would be virtually impossible for any company to renew operations in the Little Rocky Mountains using the same mining techniques Pegasus Gold employed in the
“It will never be an open pit mine again,” said Luke Ployhar, owner of Blue Arc mining. “That was always the big problem with Pegasus and that’s what caused all the problems that nobody likes. Anything that we’re pursuing will never be of that scale or even come remotely close to what it was before.”