By Chad Sokol, Daily Inter Lake

Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality is dropping its lawsuit against a North Idaho-based company seeking to develop two large silver and copper mines in Northwest Montana.

The decision prompted conservation groups involved in the case to allege political interference by Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte, who promoted the projects on the campaign trail. Administration officials rejected the assertion.

Coeur d’Alene-based Hecla Mining Co. sued in March 2018 after the DEQ attempted to label the company’s chief executive, Phillips Baker Jr., a “bad actor” under Montana’s Metal Mine Reclamation Act. The law was designed to block individuals and companies who don’t clean up their old mines from starting new ones.

The department — under then-Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat — sued back, saying Baker and Hecla should not be granted permits for the proposed mines in Lincoln and Sanders counties because of Baker’s past involvement with the Pegasus Gold Corp.

Pegasus went bankrupt in 1998, abandoning three mines in the Little Rocky Mountains south of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation and leaving taxpayers on the hook for tens of millions of dollars in reclamation and water-treatment efforts that continue to this day.

Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Mike Menahan handed the state a victory in May, ruling the DEQ has the authority to apply the “bad actor” label to Baker and other out-of-state actors, though the ruling did not address the merits of the case.

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