By MATT GOURAS/Associated Press Writer
HELENA - Tribal leaders on Fort Belknap Indian Reservation say neighboring gold mines have violated the federal Clean Water Act, and announced plans Tuesday to sue to force their cleanup.
The Assiniboine and Gros Ventre Tribes have been embroiled in a long-running dispute over the abandoned Zortman and Landusky gold mines south of Malta.
The tribes say the company that operated the open-pit gold mines did not have a large enough reclamation bond to ensure adequate cleanup of the mines. And they say its polluted water continues to drain from the mines in the Little Rocky Mountains, along the southern end of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.
The tribes said the use of cyanide in gold mining, a practice banned by voters in Montana in 1998, caused the damage, polluting water that flows through the reservation.
On Tuesday, the tribes said they sent a letter to the Bureau of Land Management, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and the site's current owner, Luke Ployhar, giving formal notice of their intent to sue.
The notice gives the agencies and the current owner 60 days to clean up the site before the lawsuit is filed, the tribes said.
The tribes said they want to make sure reclamation is paid for. They said the DEQ and the BLM assumed responsibility for the cleanup in the 1990s, while Ployhar is responsible for residue currently leaking from the area.
''The water situation in the Little Rockies is getting worse on a daily basis,'' said Benjamin Speakthunder, president of the Fort Belknap Indian Community Council. ''Swift Gulch is contaminated and the water treatment plants are not removing contaminants. The (Department of Environmental Quality) and the BLM have no plans to deal with this drastic situation.''
But the BLM said it is cleaning up the site, spending about $800,000 a year to send water through treatment plants. And by this time next year, the costs for restoring the ground will total about $34 million, said Scott Haight, mineral policy specialist with the BLM in Lewistown.
''So I'm not sure what this lawsuit would be about,'' he said Tuesday.
Haight said he had not yet received the notice from the tribe.
''We think it is looking real good up there,'' he said, adding that he thought the tribes also were satisfied with the work the BLM is doing.
State DEQ officials said Tuesday they had not seen the notice yet and couldn't comment.
The Western Environmental Law Center, of Eugene, Ore., is helping the tribe with the litigation.
Andrea Rodgers, a lawyer with the center, said the BLM treatment is not working, and discharge reports are showing that pollution is escaping the cleanup process.
''It is serious pollution that needs to be cleaned up right now,'' she said.
She said she couldn't estimate how much should be spent cleaning up the site.
''We recognize that it will be an expensive project, but that's because the pollution is so pervasive,'' Rodgers said.
It would not be the first lawsuit over the matter.
In 1993 the tribes settled a lawsuit with Pegasus Gold that forced the firm to put machinery in place to clean up the sites. The company later filed for bankruptcy.
In 2002, the Fort Belknap tribes sued the state under Montana law, saying its cleanup plans were inadequate. That lawsuit is pending.
On the Net: Western Environmental Law Center www.westernlaw.org.