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By Tim Leeds 

Fort Belknap intervenes in mining appeal


Last updated 9/21/2022 at 12:40pm

Fort Belknap Indian Community and three conservation organizations filed a motion to intervene Monday against an attempt to overturn a ruling on a decision about conducting mining exploration in the Little Rocky Mountains south of Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.

“There is substantial history establishing the detrimental effects created by previous mining activity in the Little Rockies,” President of the Fort Belknap Indian Community Jeffrey Stiffarm said in a release announcing the intervention . “Environmental impacts are being felt to this day.

The motion is in support of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality in an appeal filed by Luke Ployhar to the Board of Environmental Review challenging the agency’s decision to require a comprehensive review of proposed mining exploration in the Zortman-Landusky Reclamation Area in the Little Rocky Mountains.

The conservation organizations on the motion to intervene include Earthworks, Montana Environmental Information Center and Montana Trout Unlimited. The Tribes and organizations are represented in the appeal by Earthjustice and the Indian Law Resource Center.

The Zortman-Landusky Reclamation Area is the site of former cyanide heap leach gold mines in the Little Rocky Mountains. DEQ and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management have conducted extensive and costly reclamation under CERCLA — the Superfund program — to address widespread damage from these past mining activities. Acid mine drainage caused severe contamination of surface and groundwater in the region, including the lands and waters of the Fort Belknap Indian Community.

Ployhar filed an application in July 2021 to conduct exploration activities on lands within the Zortman Landusky Reclamation Area. After completing an environmental assessment and receiving significant tribal and public input, after a public meeting was held that showed extensive opposition and concerns about the exploration,  DEQ determined Feb. 3 that a more comprehensive environmental impact statement was necessary to analyze the potential impacts to areas of tribal cultural significance.

In its release, DEQ Director Chris Dorrington said, “This was the right decision for this site. DEQ received comments from three tribal historic preservation officers, all of whom indicated potential serious impacts to cultural resources for the Nakoda and Aaniiih people.” 

Ployhar filed an appeal of DEQ’s decision with the BER May 27.

Ployhar is the subject of an ongoing enforcement action by DEQ for alleged illegal exploration activities at seven other sites in the Little Rockies.

DEQ issued a $516,567 penalty to Ployhar in July, in which DEQ described the exploration activities as a violation of major gravity that has compromised reclamation work at the site and represents a risk of acid mine drainage. This enforcement action is still pending.  

In the release, Stiffarm said the Fort Belknap Indian Community will continue to actively pursue any issues it perceives will detrimentally affect the homelands of the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine people. That includes supporting the positions of other agencies that understand the need of a comprehensive review of any proposed mining exploration.

“The Fort Belknap Indian Community will continue to monitor this situation and provide support wherever we can, including providing information regarding cultural and spiritual aspects of the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes,” Stiffarm said.

“It’s hard to overstate the harm that’s been done by past mining in the Little Rockies and the enormous financial investment to reclaim the area to safe use,” Bonnie Gestring, northwest program director at Earthworks, added in the release. “DEQ’s decision to require a comprehensive review is the responsible course of action, particularly in light of the ongoing enforcement action.” 

“Given the history of never-ending water pollution and taxpayer investment in cleanup costs due to recent mining of this area, as well as the wealth of FBIC cultural and environmental sites in this area, any new mining should require thorough scrutiny,” said David Brooks, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited. “That’s why we stand behind DEQ’s decision to require a full EIS in considering any future mining in this area.”

“It’s unconscionable that we’d ever consider more mining in such an important place for the Nakoda and Aaniiih people, a place that has already been severely impacted from mining,” said Derf Johnson, deputy director of the Montana Environmental Information Center. “DEQ is on the right path in really digging into the various potential impacts to the environment and the Fort Belknap Indian Community in advance of even considering more mining.”


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