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Fort Belknap Indian Community sues to stop mine work

| April 4, 2021 12:00 AM

MALTA, Mont. (AP) — The Fort Belknap Indian Community has sued to halt a Bozeman-based mining company from assessing whether rock at an old mine in the Little Rocky Mountains contains gold.

The lawsuit filed in Phillips County District Court claims the Montana Department of Environmental Quality erred in not consulting with the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes regarding the work, the Billings Gazette reported.

Earthworks and the Montana Environmental Information Center have joined the suit as plaintiffs.

In February, the DEQ approved Blue Arc's plan to remove 1,000 tons of rock from an exposed cliff for testing. The work would be done at the old Pegasus mine near Zortman. Pegasus Gold Corp. declared bankruptcy in 1998. The company's bond didn't cover the cost of cleaning up the site, leaving the state with a $100 million bill and water treatment requirements that are projected to last decades.

"Even with ongoing water treatment, that contamination has already spread to, and continues to creep deeper onto, the Reservation, including near key cultural sites and the Fort Belknap Tribes' powwow grounds," the lawsuit claims.

If consulted by DEQ, the tribes would have "objected to the project on grounds that it would threaten to further contaminate water sources and jeopardize the ongoing clean-up efforts from former mining endeavors at Zortman, which still plague the surrounding areas and the Reservation today," the lawsuit says.

The tribes raised their concerns during DEQ's public comment period. The agency responded that it didn't conduct any scoping due to the 90-day time limit to prepare the draft EA. DEQ did seek comment from the tribes after the draft EA was written, the agency noted.

In part because of the past mining problems, the Bureau of Land Management has proposed a 20-year withdrawal of mining on its federal lands in the area.

"To this day, the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes continue to experience devastating health and environmental consequences from past mining," said FBIC President Andrew Werk Jr. in a press release. "By giving the green light to Zortman exploration without proper tribal consultation and adequate analysis of environmental impact, DEQ has shown shocking indifference to the enormous potential for further water contamination, harm to tribal members, and permanent contamination of tribal lands. It's as if we have learned nothing from the past."

DEQ's approval of the project extends only to the exploratory work. Any further mining would require additional agency scrutiny.

Blue Arc owner Luke Ployhar told the Billings Gazette in November that technology has solved many of the problems created by Pegasus when it mined the area.