Aerial pictures assist state company uncover unlawful mining of Superfund website

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(CN) — After capitalizing on a two-day lapse in a federal mining ban at Montana’s beleaguered Zortman-Landusky mines in 2020, a small mining firm seems to have been growing its claims with out the authorization of the state environmental company.

In early July, the Montana Division of Environmental High quality drafted an administrative order that will require two people and their mining corporations to reverse the injury they’ve precipitated to the positioning of the previous Zortman gold mines. They’d even be required to pay greater than a half-million {dollars} in penalties for violating the Montana Steel Mine Reclamation Act by working with out permits and for refusing to publish bond cash for reclamation.

Nevertheless, at this level, the executive order is simply a draft doc, stated Montana DEQ spokeswoman Moira Davin. However Davin stated it’s getting used as a persist with encourage Luke Ployhar of Bozeman and Owen Voigt of Helena to cease their digging, which is destroying a number of the reclamation work that’s been accomplished for the reason that mine was listed as a federal Superfund website in 2004.

“The negotiations are ongoing. DEQ reserves the precise to challenge the order if discussions aren’t profitable,” Davins stated.

The Assiniboine and Gros Ventres tribes of the Fort Belknap Reservation are following the proceedings carefully, as are three environmental teams: Earthworks, the Montana Environmental Data Middle and Montana Trout Limitless. They reacted Wednesday upon studying of the draft administrative order.

“The devastation at Zortman-Landusky from earlier mining exercise is unforgivable. The Little Rockies and the Zortman-Landusky space needs to be off limits to any extra mining,” stated Derf Johnson, Montana Environmental Data Middle legal professional. “It’s jaw dropping that somebody would threat even additional environmental devastation, and so we’re heartened to see DEQ crack down on dangerous mining exercise.”

With regards to examples of mining’s devastating environmental injury in Montana, the Zortman-Landusky gold and silver mines, positioned within the Little Rocky Mountains simply south of the Fort Belknap Reservation, are in all probability second solely to the intensive copper mines of Butte. Pegasus Gold Company used the caustic technique of cyanide heap leach mining to extract gold from the Zortman Mine from 1979 till it declared chapter in 1998. After that, the price of cleanup and reclamation fell to the taxpayers because the state of Montana and the U.S. Bureau of Land Administration assumed accountability.

As Pegasus Gold pulled out, Ployhar purchased some land on the Zortman mine website in 2001, which later grew to become a part of the Superfund website. In keeping with the draft administrative order, Ployhar’s buy settlement required Ployhar to permit DEQ entry to the property for reclamation actions and that the water on the property be handled eternally.

The Zortman mine was one of many first giant cyanide heap leach operations within the nation to open, and it skilled many issues, together with cyanide spills and floor and groundwater contamination. The mine incorporates excessive quantities of sulfide rock, which produces sulfuric acid when uncovered to water, both within the type of groundwater or precipitation.

After struggling years of contamination, locals lastly sued Pegasus Gold below the Clear Water Act and got here away with a $36 million settlement in 1996. Nevertheless, that doesn’t go far when water must be handled in perpetuity. The water sources for Fort Belknap are nonetheless threatened by acid mine drainage, however at present the tribes’ funding for water remedy lasts solely till 2028.

“The Aaniiih and Nakoda Tribes thank the DEQ for upholding the legislation and issuing a penalty that’s commensurate with the egregious violation dedicated. We are going to proceed to guard our treasured water and sacred websites on this space of the reservation,” stated Jeffrey Stiffarm, Fort Belknap Indian Group president on Wednesday.

Montanans voted in 1998 to ban cyanide heap leach mining.

After the Zortman Mine was designated a Superfund website in 2004, the BLM constructed 5 water remedy vegetation and began mine reclamation actions, which up to now have price $80-$85 million, in response to the executive order.

In any case that funding, Montana DEQ staff weren’t completely satisfied this March to see that unscheduled excavation had disturbed a number of the reclamation work.

That they had been trying by way of World Imagery aerial images from Sept. 20 for proof after Voigt knowledgeable them he’d been digging for samples within the remedy plant sludge on the Landusky silver mine, two miles away from the Zortman mine. Voigt’s firm, Legacy Mining, had gathered the samples to validate his proposal to course of the sludge for metals, however he hadn’t gotten permission to dig.

DEQ despatched Ployhar and Voigt a letter saying any disruption of accomplished or ongoing reclamation work may threat legal responsibility below Superfund legislation. DEQ requested Ployhar ship a written response acknowledging that he understood, however Ployhar by no means responded.

Along with Voigt’s sludge excavation, DEQ found seven different unlawful dig websites within the images, all of which have been positioned in three areas of Ployhar’s property the place Ployhar and Voigt have been making use of for exploration licenses since 2020. That’s when Ployhar and his firm Blue Arc filed a mining declare with the BLM in a two-day window instantly after a 20-year mining moratorium at Zortman-Landusky expired however earlier than the BLM may get one other moratorium in place, in response to the Every day Montanan.

Although Ployhar owns the property, the BLM is concerned as a result of it oversees mineral rights and BLM land surrounds the 2 mine websites. So the company banned mining throughout the mine websites beginning in 2000 whereas it was cleansing up public land. The BLM has additionally positioned mineral proper moratoriums on 3,600 acres of public land surrounding the mine websites.

DEQ denied three successive exploration purposes from Ployhar for numerous causes. For the primary proposal, Ployhar by no means posted the required reclamation bond. The second software proposed to reopen two underground tunnels, however Ployhar withdrew that eight months later. For the third software to dig a protracted deep trench, DEQ went by way of with an environmental evaluation however a number of public feedback stated the proposal needs to be rejected as a result of the world had cultural significance for the Fort Belknap tribes. A call hadn’t been reached earlier than DEQ found the unlawful digging.

DEQ personnel visited the eight websites on the finish of March to confirm what they’d seen within the aerial pictures. They confirmed that the digging had broken reclamation work, together with areas the place vegetation, soil and capping materials had been eliminated, inflicting extra of an acid menace to groundwater. In addition they found that the capped entrances to the 2 underground tunnels Ployhar had utilized to develop had been altered.

“The operator’s disturbance of the adit, with out overview/approval from DEQ, was ill-advised because it probably broken the groundwater monitoring nicely, elevated water leaving the adit and infiltrating into the groundwater and created important security considerations,” the draft administrative order stated.

Ployhar stated he was simply “cleansing up the entry so as to add doorways to safe for security and entry,” in response to the executive order.

Bonnie Gestring, Earthworks Northwest Program director, praised DEQ for being ready to take enforcement motion.

“It’s infuriating to see such blatant disregard for the a long time of reclamation work to manage acid drainage and enhance water high quality within the Little Rockies,” Gestring stated.

Primarily based on all of the proof it had discovered, DEQ despatched letter to Ployhar and Voigt, accusing them of mining with no allow or bond. Within the letter, DEQ provided the boys an out by both reclaiming the disturbed areas or acquiring the mandatory permits with the required bonds. The present negotiations probably embody comparable presents and necessities.

Two weeks later, Ployhar emailed DEQ, protesting that what DEQ thought was mining was actually simply preparations for campgrounds and cabins.

Ployhar most just lately tried to attraction to Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte. Ployhar’s June 1 electronic mail stated he’d moved to Montana in 2016 to develop the mineral and leisure reserves of his property. He went on to say DEQ’s necessities have been unreasonable and that his mine may present jobs. He inaccurately claimed that DEQ wouldn’t must deal with the water anymore if he may mine the ore as a result of extra of the sulfide rock could be eliminated.

In different conditions, Gianforte has expressed unqualified help for mining corporations. In July 2021, his administration dropped a DEQ lawsuit begun by the earlier administration that will have labeled Hecla Mining Firm CEO Phillips Baker Jr. as a “unhealthy actor” for his function within the Pegasus Gold abandonment of the Zortman-Landusky mines. Baker was the highest monetary officer for Pegasus Gold throughout the chapter. If Baker have been discovered to be a nasty actor below Montana legislation, his present firm, Helca, wouldn’t be allowed to develop two mines proposed in western Montana.

Gianforte has criticized state and federal officers for a way lengthy it has taken to get the 2 mines permitted, in response to the Montana Free Press.

Nevertheless, the state of Montana isn’t the one one to make the decision. The BLM additionally has to approve Ployhar’s declare.

“Submitting a declare doesn’t imply growing a declare. There’d be a very excessive bar right here to fulfill — together with bonding and environmental concerns,” stated BLM spokesman Al Nash in December. “It could be a unprecedented monetary hurdle to get us to a spot the place we’d give severe consideration for exploration there.”

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