Havre Daily News
FORT BELKNAP AGENCY - Almost 20 years later, Tina Has The Eagle can still hear her 3-year-old son's screams.
The boy was playing in the waters that flow onto Fort Belknap Indian Reservation from the now-defunct Zortman-Landusky gold project along the reservation's southern border when his feet started to burn. Cold water didn't help, and only a doctor's visit eased the pain.
Her son's feet are still scarred, she said.
Has The Eagle, a tribal council member, on Wednesday joined about 20 other people at a public hearing who told the Montana Board of Environmental Review that a proposed rule to quicken the cleanup of water contaminated by mining is necessary to ensure the safety of other communities in the state.
“I don't want to see other families suffer the consequences we have,” Has The Eagle said.
The board will now take a little more time to consider the rule. Its members decided to extend the deadline for public comment from next Wednesday to March 17. They will also consider rewording the rule, which was submitted by Fort Belknap tribes and the Montana Environmental Information Center last summer.
The rule would require that mining operations, in their application for a permit, demonstrate they can clean up surface and groundwater contamination within the same time frame as other cleanup at the mine.
At a public hearing on Tuesday in Boulder, mining industry representatives and other critics of the rule said it would throw existing mines out of business, and called the treatment requirement impossible to satisfy. While Tuesday's meeting only saw one advocate, only one opponent spoke Wednesday at the bingo hall in Fort Belknap Agency.
MEIC water and mining program director Jeff Barber proposed two changes to the rule. One would exclude existing mine operations, while the other would change the language of the rule.
Under the current proposal, mining companies would have to “conclusively demonstrate” that perpetual water treatment would not be needed at mine sites that have been closed and cleaned up. Barber wants the rule changed so that companies will have to provide “clear and convincing evidence.”
The proposed exclusion for existing mines means the state Department of Environmental Quality will rework an economic study of the rule's effects.
Like Has The Eagle, many who spoke at the hearing remembered how times have changed for residents at the southern end of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.
Waters that flow onto tribal land from the abandoned mines now have the red and orange tints of acid mine drainage, they said. People who remembered swimming in and drinking the waters at Mission Canyon said they can't allow their children and grandchildren to do the same. Animals in the area are sickly and lose patches of hair.
Catherine Halver, vice president of Island Mountain Protectors, a grass-roots group that sued mine owner Pegasus Gold Inc. in the mid-1990s, said residents were left “holding the sack” after the operation's closure. Many in the area are now forced to buy water for bathing, cooking and drinking.
The two open-pit mines were operated by Pegasus from 1979 to 1998, when the company went bankrupt. The company pioneered the now-outlawed technique of heap-leach mining, in which cyanide solutions were poured over mountain rubble to extract small amounts of gold. Large portions of some of the mountains in the Little Rockies, sacred to tribal members who used them for fasting sites and for hunting, were reduced to rubble by the mines' operation.
Tribal environmental liaison Dean Stiffarm said state and federal agencies did not consider the mines' long-term effects when the mines were permitted in 1979 and during numerous expansions.
“All they did was see the dollars,” Stiffarm said. “They didn't see the whole picture of what would happen.”
Blaine County Commissioner Delores Plumage called the mines “a disaster.”
“That is a shame for the state of Montana,” she said.
Tribal council president Julia Doney said the proposed rule would save future generations across Montana from similar problems, adding that the millions spent on cleanup at Zortman-Landusky could instead have been used to create jobs and improve the quality of life for Montanans.
“We just want to try to help other communities to not go through what we've had to go through,” Doney said. “Mining companies come and go, but Montanans stay here.”
State Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Rocky Boy and a Rocky Boy tribal council member, said he will be keeping a “close eye” on the board's actions. Windy Boy sponsored a bill last year creating a trust fund for water cleanup at the Zortman-Landusky mines. The state will deposit about $1.5 million a year into the fund, and the earnings will be used for water treatment when current funding runs out in 2018.
Windy Boy said the proposed rule would set up a checks-and-balances system to protect future generations from the ill effects of mining, adding that he would “seriously consider” sponsoring legislation next year to implement the requirement if the board does not approve the rule.
Bozeman resident Will Patric, who has spent years studying and writing about the Zortman-Landusky complex, said Pegasus “got its way” and left taxpayers to foot the bill. He spoke of numerous failures at the mine's facilities. As far back as the early 1980s, “measurable amounts” of cyanide were found in tap water at area homes, Patric said. He implored the board to approve the rule.
“This community's misfortune would be even more tragic if we didn't at least learn something from it,” he said.