“They took the heart of the mountains away from us.”
This story was originally published by the Center for Public Integrity.
The remnants of an abandoned gold and silver mine scar the Little Rocky Mountains just south of the Fort Belknap Indian Community in Montana, bleeding polluted orange water into streams that meander through the reservation. Warren Morin remembers drinking the once-pristine water while he was growing up in the 1970s. Now it’s so acidic it makes his skin burn and turn red on contact.
Pegasus Gold Corp., a Canadian company that owned that mine and several others in the state, went bankrupt and folded 20 years ago. That left a legacy of water pollution and a cleanup bill nearing $100 million—with no end in sight. “They took the heart of the mountains away from us,” said Morin, chair of the tribal council’s natural resources committee.
Pegasus isn’t an isolated case. Especially in the drought-prone West, the outdated and opaque regulatory system meant to ensure money is available to restore water and land at gold, copper and other hardrock mines often falls short.
Regulators with insufficient funding are tasked with cleaning up a mess left years ago by now-defunct companies. The agencies that required those firms to set aside money underestimated how much it would take, in some cases acquiescing to companies pressing for lower amounts.
Pollution seeping from these mines regularly contaminates waterways. There’s often no end date to treatment costs, billions of dollars of which have been shouldered by taxpayers. Contributing to this situation is Zortman-Landusky, the mine abutting the Fort Belknap reservation that’s the most troublesome of three former Pegasus operations.