Fort Belknap Indian Community, Conservation Groups Challenge Mining Plan

Zortman Exploration Could Worsen Contamination of Tribes’ Water, Land

Harlem, Montana — Faced with the prospect of more mining in an area that has already experienced devastating health and environmental impacts from past mining, the Fort Belknap Indian Community (FBIC) today filed suit in the Montana District Court in Phillips County to challenge the State of Montana’s approval of a plan for gold exploration at the former Zortman-Landusky mine complex.

The lawsuit challenges the legality of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) decision allowing Blue Arc, LLC, to disturb the still-contaminated site by removing 1,000 tons of rock for analysis. It lists DEQ’s failure to adhere to several legal requirements in violation of state law, including bypassing consultation with the Fort Belknap Tribes and conducting an incomplete environmental evaluation before approving the plan. Significantly, the suit further details how DEQ inadequately disclosed the potential harm the gold mining exploration plan would have on the area’s water and other natural resources.

The complaint, filed by the tribes, Earthworks and the Montana Environmental Information Center, asks the court to invalidate the plan.

“To this day, the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Tribes continue to experience devastating health and environmental consequences from past mining,” said FBIC President Andrew Werk, Jr. “By giving the green light to Zortman exploration without proper tribal consultation and adequate analysis of environmental impact, DEQ has shown shocking indifference to the enormous potential for further water contamination, harm to tribal members, and permanent contamination of tribal lands. It’s as if we have learned nothing from the past.”

The plan opens the door for new mining in the Little Rocky Mountains, location of the headwaters for much of the Reservation’s water resources and of significant cultural importance to the tribes. New mining could also undo decades of ongoing reclamation work and jeopardize clean-up efforts that are still underway. The State of Montana has already invested $32 million in reclamation work at the Zortman-Landusky mine complex to address the extensive pollution left by the former mining company after it filed for bankruptcy and abandoned the site. At risk are local drinking water, fragile fish and wildlife habitat, recreation sites, agricultural uses, and tribal sacred sites. “This is a perpetual nightmare for our people. We live down below the mines and still don’t know when or if the situation of the water contamination will ever get better or not. We’ve had tours with the DEQ over the past few years. They asked us to help advocate to the federal government for funding to ensure perpetual treatment of the water. I am disappointed and angry that the DEQ is issuing any type of mining permits in that area,” said FBIC Councilman Warren Morin.

“Once again, tribal people are being asked to shoulder the devastating burden of environmental injustice,” Werk stated. “The State of Montana must prioritize protecting the health of Montana communities, including the Fort Belknap Indian Community, and protecting the natural resources that sustain all life. DEQ’s approval of Blue Arc’s plan not only flies in the face of this responsibility, but it is also demonstrably illegal.”

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About the Fort Belknap Indian Community

Fort Belknap Indian Community consists of the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Tribes who reside on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in north-central Montana.  The Fort Belknap Indian Community Council is the governing body for the FBIC.  It is responsible for managing the affairs of the Community and committed to the protection of the environment, human health, and safety of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.