By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
After being told in May that only state Department of Environmental Quality representatives could tour mine sites on private land south of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, members of the tribal government may get a chance to tour the sites again.
"The purpose of the visit is to give us information on the development - or nondevelopment - of the plan to rehabilitate the mines," said Ben Speakthunder, president of the Fort Belknap Indian Community Council.
The tribal government in May received a copy of a letter from the attorney of Dale Ployhar, an owner of some of the private land the Zortman and Landusky mines are on. The May 13 letter said only representatives of DEQ could visit the Ployhars' land at the sites.
The mines have been inactive since their operator, Pegasus Gold Corp., declared bankruptcy in 1998.
Speakthunder requested the tour in a letter to DEQ and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which manages some of the land the mines are on, after he found out that Rep. Jeff Pattison, R-Glasgow, had toured the sites in July. The tribal government didn't know Pattison was going to tour the sites until tribal government officials read about his tour in the Phillips County News, Speakthunder said.
"As the tribal government we felt it was very rude to be left out," he said.
Wayne Jepson, Zortman project manager for DEQ, said Dale Ployhar's son, Luke Ployhar, gave permission for Pattison's tour. He also has given permission for tribal representatives to tour, tentatively on Sept. 3, Jepson said.
Luke Ployhar bought the land in 2001 during the Pegasus bankruptcy proceedings.
Dale Ployhar said the reason he had the letter sent to DEQ was to make it clear that people could only tour the sites with the Ployhars' approval. He said he wants to give the Fort Belknap representatives a tour at some point, and would also like to meet with Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Rocky Boy, who sponsored a bill in the 2003 Legislature to provide money for water treatment at the site.
Windy Boy later withdrew the bill when its funding was changed by an amendment.
Ployhar said he and his son are open to approving tours, as long as they are asked.
"And I don't care to have the BLM there. I think they're out of the loop," he said.
Speakthunder said he hasn't received any official notice that the tribal government can tour the sites. The tribes' ability to monitor the reclamation is very important to them, he added.
"There's a lot at stake here. There always has been," he said.
The Fort Belknap government didn't request a tour from Ployhar because the wording of the letter implied no tours would be given, he said.
"We thought, 'Why even compound it further?'" Speakthunder added.
Jepson said DEQ's reclamation of the Zortman mine is almost complete, but that's not the case at Landusky.
"There's quite a bit of work left. We don't have enough money to complete that yet," he said Wednesday.
Water treatment will continue after the reclamation of the sites is complete, Jepson said. DEQ will keep some money in reserve for care and maintenance of the sites and continuing water treatment, he said.
The DEQ is having the mines reshaped and filling the mine pits to some extent, Jepson said. Topsoil is being spread and vegetation planted.
The Pegasus reclamation bonds included slightly more than $10 million for the Zortman site, and about $1 million is left, he said. The bond for the Landusky site was about $19.6 million, with about $4 million left, he said.
The Landusky bond will not be enough to complete the reclamation, he said. Once that money runs out, the work will stop, although BLM may be able to provide about $2.5 million more, Jepson said.
The estimate of the costs for the cleanup proposed by DEQ and BLM was $33.5 million more than the Pegasus bonds. Andy Huff, a lawyer with the Indian Law Resources Center office in Helena, said the tribes feel that still is not enough.
The center is representing Fort Belknap in a lawsuit against DEQ that says the reclamation plan fails to meet the state's constitutional obligation to make sure the site is fully reclaimed.
Ployhar, who farms in the Denton-Coffee Creek area, said he thinks the reclamation should be nearly done. He and his son bought the land expecting the work, except for water treatment, to be finished fairly quickly.
His son, who is in the film industry, bought the land hoping to make movies there, Ployhar said.
"We bought the land on the concept it would be done and they would get out of there except for the Montana DEQ continuing to treat water," he said.
Separate bonds provide money for treating water at the sites. The bonds, which provide more than $700,000 a year, do not quite cover the cost of water treatment, and DEQ is lobbying for the creation of a trust fund to provide the rest, Jepson said.
Windy Boy's bill would have created that trust, Jepson said. The bill would have allocated part of Montana's federal mineral lease and royalty income to a state debt service fund. That would have allowed the sale of $12 million in bonds to fund the water treatment trust.
Windy Boy asked the House to kill his bill after it was amended. The amendment eliminated the allocation of federal lease and royalty money; reduced the amount of bonds that could be sold to $2 million and made their sale contingent on receiving $10 million from the federal government.
Speakthunder said Fort Belknap is worried about the health of downstream residents. If contaminated runoff enters the water supply or the groundwater is contaminated, it would be a serious health problem, he said.