Fort Belknap, environmental groups seek to intervene in review of mine site exploratory project

Montana DEQ
Posted at 9:17 AM, Sep 20, 2022

HELENA — The former Zortman and Landusky mines, in the Little Rocky Mountains of north-central Montana, once produced gold. Since then, they’ve undergone years of reclamation and treatment work to address environmental impacts. Now, both state and federal agencies are considering what type of activity should be allowed at the site in the future.

The Fort Belknap Indian Community and three environmental organizations say they have been concerned for years about the impact of mining in the Zortman-Landusky area. Now, those groups are asking to join in an upcoming hearing on a proposed exploratory project at the former mine site.

Applicant Luke Ployhar sought approval from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to dig a 35-foot-long, 25-foot-deep trench in a previously mined area, to take out 125 tons of material for metallurgical testing. He said the project would affect less than an acre and take just ten days, and the area would be restored days after completion. The initial permit request would only cover exploratory work – a separate permit would be required before any full-scale mining activity could begin.

In February, DEQ leaders announced they would require a full environmental impact statement to be completed before the planned exploration could go forward. They said the project wouldn’t have significant impacts on most aspects of the area, but there needed to be more study on how it could affect the “human environment” – particularly cultural, historical and archaeological resources important to nearby tribes.

The department’s final environmental assessment said they received comment from a number of tribal members, saying the Little Rocky Mountains were a very significant area for the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine people, and the fact that the area had previously been disturbed by mining only made it more important to protect it.

DEQ said, in 2021, they did approve another exploratory project about 1000 feet away, from Blue Arc, LLC, a company Ployhar owns. Blue Arc has not yet posted a bond for that project, but could begin work as soon as they do so. DEQ said it was important to consider the possibility that the projects’ combined impacts could have a greater effect on cultural resources.

Ployhar and his attorneys questioned the decision and requested that the state Board of Environmental Review take another look at it. They argued DEQ hadn’t provided enough evidence to show there could be significant cultural impacts from the exploratory project, so a full environmental impact statement shouldn’t be necessary. The board is likely to consider the issue at a meeting this fall.

The Fort Belknap tribes, along with the groups Montana Environmental Information Center, Earthworks and Montana Trout Unlimited, filed to intervene in the board’s review.

“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, in a statement. “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 groups said acidic runoff from the Zortman and Landusky mines has continued to affect water quality on the Fort Belknap reservation and in other surrounding areas. They expressed concern that more mining work in the area could contribute to that contamination, and they argued the existing mines should be fully cleaned up before anything new begins.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management announced it was placing a 20-year ban on new mining activity on 2,600 acres of public lands on the Zortman-Landusky site. BLM leaders said that would give the agency more time to see how effective the current reclamation work has been. They’re also considering adding 900 more acres to the withdrawal, which was originally approved in 2000 and expired in October 2020.

Ployhar’s proposed exploration is on private land, so it’s not affected by the BLM’s decision.

The BLM says about $83.7 million in reclamation bonds and state and federal funding has already been spent on restoration and water treatment at the Zortman-Landusky site. They estimate another $2.2 million will be needed for treatment every year for the foreseeable future.