Public Voices Strong Opposition to Proposed Zortman Mine Exploration

By Josh Margolis

HAYS, Mont. (NMB) – The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) hosted a public meeting on Tuesday evening both virtually and at locations throughout the Fort Belknap Reservation about a proposed mining exploration project near Zortman.

The project is proposed by Luke Ployhar on private land at the former Zortman Mine.

Fort Belknap Council President Jeff Stiffarm provided an opening statement, saying it is the Tribes’ stance to oppose this project, citing pollution caused by previous mining efforts.

“Basically, because of what happened in the past. Nothing has changed. The taxpayers have been paying for the mistake up in the mountains forever. And we’re going to see that happen with the new mining that’s proposed. DEQ and Luke Ployhar are worried more about money than they are about people’s lives. And it’s our stance here on Fort Belknap to be concerned about people’s livelihood, our lives, the water that runs off the mountains up there that affects our cultural grounds that we have. We have Sundance grounds, we have powwow grounds up there.”

Whitney Bausch of the DEQ provided an overview of the project and said this is an exploration project, which is different from mining.

“Ployhar would clear trees that have reoccupied an old road that was used as part of an old mining operation. This would create 686 feet of access road. A drainage trench would be excavated at the end of the road to catch any runoff, and trees that are removed would be replaced on the downhill side of the road. Ployhar would also excavate one trench, the dimensions of the trench would be 35 feet long by 10 feet wide by 25 feet deep. For comparison, that’s about the size of two school buses stacked on top of each other. 675 tons of material would be removed from the trench, 125 tons of material would be sampled, and 550 tons of waste rock would be placed on the east side of the trench in a waste rock stock pile. Material to be sampled would be hauled up the new road to the existing main road, and the sample would be hauled offsite for testing. Erosion control mechanisms would be placed on the downhill side of both the waste rock stockpile and the trench to prevent sediment runoff during the operation. The project would last for approximately 10 days, and work would be conducted between 8 AM and 6 PM. To reclaim all of the material from the waste rock pile would be used to backfill the trench, which would then be graded to match the existing contour. The new road and drainage ditch would be left in place at the request of the landowner. No revegetation of the trench would be required, because the area does not currently have any vegetation. And complete restoration would be required within two years of completing the exploration project.”

Bausch said that ground water is about 700 feet below the ground surface at the project location, so there would be 675 feet between the bottom of the trench and the groundwater, which she says means there will be no impacts to water from this project.

The proposed project is not a full-scale mine and the operator would have to apply for a separate permit and undergo a separate environmental analysis should he wish to operate a full-scale mine.

Derf Johnson, Montana Environmental Information Center Staff Attorney, said he is strongly opposed to the project.

“I don’t think anybody who goes and sees (the former Pegasus Mine) project or what happened up in the Little Rocky Mountains would be comfortable with more mining. The devastation is just jaw-dropping. DEQ, you guys are the last line of defense in terms of protecting Montana’s water. And there’s a lot of folks that are counting on you to do the right thing here. And as far as this environmental analysis is concerned, you haven’t. I am always very concerned about minimizing and truncating environmental analyses to very discreet projects. And in this case, just the exploration project. That only serves the purpose of ignoring reality, which is that mining exploration leads to mining. It is the first step in what could be a whole range of activities and impacts.”

Shelby DeMars, Executive Director of the Montana Association of Oil, Gas and Coal Counties, was the only person during the public comment period that voiced support for the project.

“We recognize that this is not a permit for a mine at this point. It is simply a request for exploration activities. The impact of this is fairly minimal, and hopefully this exploration does lead to development. Which if it does get to that point, would go through a very thorough EA and permitting process that would allow a mining effort to move forward … Our permitting processes have come a long way since (the Pegasus project). And protecting the environment and developing our natural resources are not mutually exclusive.”

The Environmental Assessment says that most impacts from the project would be short-term and minor. Impacts to air quality could come from dust particulates and exhaust fumes, and there could be a short-term increase in noxious weeds.

Bausch says the DEQ will review the public comments to refine the final Environmental Review. Once that is finished, DEQ will issue a final bond calculation, which is a financial assurance that the site will be reclaimed after exploration is completed. The bond must be issued by Ployhar before DEQ can issue the exploration license.

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