HELENA, MT — The Fort Belknap Indian Community (FBIC) and three conservation organizations filed a motion to intervene in support of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in an appeal filed by Luke Ployhar to the Board of Environmental Review (BER) challenging the agency’s decision to require a comprehensive review of proposed mining exploration in the Zortman-Landusky Reclamation Area in the Little Rocky Mountains.
“There is substantial history establishing the detrimental effects created by previous mining activity in the Little Rockies,” said Jeffrey Stiffarm, president of the Fort Belknap Indian Community. “Environmental impacts are being felt to this day. The Fort Belknap Indian Community will continue to actively pursue any issues that detrimentally affect the homelands of the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine people. This includes supporting the positions of other agencies that understand the need of a comprehensive review of any proposed mining exploration. The Fort Belknap Indian Community will continue to monitor this situation and provide support wherever we can, including providing information regarding cultural and spiritual aspects of the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Tribes.”
The Zortman-Landusky Reclamation Area is the site of former cyanide heap leach gold mines in the Little Rocky Mountains. DEQ and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) have conducted extensive and costly reclamation under CERCLA (the Superfund program) to address widespread damage from these past mining activities. Acid mine drainage caused severe contamination of surface and groundwater in the region, including the lands and waters of the Fort Belknap Indian Community. An estimated $80-85 million, primarily state and federal funds, has already been invested in reclamation and water treatment at the site.
In July 2021, Ployhar filed an application to conduct exploration activities on lands within the Zortman Landusky Reclamation Area. After completing an environmental assessment and receiving significant tribal and public input, DEQ determined on February 3, 2022 that a more comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was necessary to analyze the potential impacts to areas of tribal cultural significance. In its release, DEQ Director Chris Dorrington stated, “This was the right decision for this site. DEQ received comments from three Tribal Historic Preservation Officers, all of whom indicated potential serious impacts to cultural resources for the Nakoda and Aaniiih people.” Ployhar filed an appeal of DEQ’s decision with the BER on May 27, 2022.
Ployhar is the subject of an ongoing enforcement action by DEQ for alleged illegal exploration activities at seven other sites in the Little Rockies. In July 2022, DEQ issued a $516,567 penalty to Ployhar, in which DEQ described the exploration activities as a violation of major gravity that has compromised reclamation work at the site and represents a risk of acid mine drainage. This enforcement action is still pending.
“It’s hard to overstate the harm that’s been done by past mining in the Little Rockies and the enormous financial investment to reclaim the area to safe use,” said Bonnie Gestring, northwest program director at Earthworks. “DEQ’s decision to require a comprehensive review is the responsible course of action, particularly in light of the ongoing enforcement action.”
“Given the history of never-ending water pollution and taxpayer investment in cleanup costs due to recent mining of this area, as well as the wealth of FBIC cultural and environmental sites in this area, any new mining should require thorough scrutiny,” said David Brooks, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited. “That’s why we stand behind DEQ’s decision to require a full EIS in considering any future mining in this area.”
“It’s unconscionable that we’d ever consider more mining in such an important place for the Nakoda and Aaniiih people, a place that has already been severely impacted from mining,” said Derf Johnson, deputy director of the Montana Environmental Information Center. “DEQ is on the right path in really digging into the various potential impacts to the environment and the Fort Belknap Indian Community in advance of even considering more mining.”
The conservation organizations on the appeal include Earthworks, Montana Environmental Information Center, and Montana Trout Unlimited. The Tribes and organizations are represented in the appeal by Earthjustice and the Indian Law Resource Center.