By Justin Franz, Montana Free Press
The Montana Department of Environmental Quality has asked a district court judge to dismiss a case that would have labeled the CEO of an Idaho-based mining company a “bad actor,” preventing the company from opening two copper and silver mines in northwest Montana.
DEQ’s decision to drop its case against Hecla Mining Company and CEO Phillips S. Baker came as little surprise to opponents and supporters of the Rock Creek and Montanore projects following the election of Gov. Greg Gianforte. Last year, Gianforte spoke favorably of the two projects in Lincoln and Sanders counties and held a campaign event at Hecla’s offices in Libby. In its motion to dismiss, attorneys representing DEQ said Gianforte’s election and the appointment of a new director prompted the agency to reevaluate the case, which was originally filed during the Bullock administration.
In a press release announcing its motion to dismiss, officials said they believed there were problems with the case, and that those hurdles might have impacts on future attempts to use the law. In court documents, the agency also said it appears that Hecla is in compliance with state law at all three of its sites in Montana: Rock Creek, Montanore and the Troy Mine, which permanently closed in 2015 and is now in remediation.
The Montanore and Rock Creek projects were first proposed by different companies in the early 1980s. Mining officials have said that together the two mines beneath the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness could produce more than 500 million ounces of silver and 4 billion pounds of copper, making them one of the largest untapped deposits of either mineral in the world. Both projects have been bogged down in the state and federal permitting process for decades, shepherded by two small mining companies, including one that ran the now-shuttered Troy Mine. In 2015, Coeur d’Alene-based Hecla purchased both projects. Hecla was founded in 1891 and currently operates mines in Idaho, Alaska and Quebec.