Environmental Racism on Montana Reservation
In 1994, when I first arrived in
Montana to work for Red Thunder Incorporated (RTI), now known
as Spirit Mountain Cultural Clan, on the Fort Belknap Native
American reservation, environmental racism was a fairly new
Organ cancer rates among Navajo
teenagers living near uranium spills were reported to be 17
times higher than the national average, there were high
levels of lead poisoning among African-American children in
inner city housing projects, and birth defects and high
cancer rates among Latino children of farm workers exposed to
In 1992, the Southwest Network, an
eight-state coalition of hundreds of multi-racial
community-based organizations and individuals, formally
accused the EPA, which has "trustee" responsibility
for Indians through its Department of the Interior, of
environmental racism by allowing harmful industrial and
government facilities to be disproportionately located on
reservations, as well as in communities of color and low
At Fort Belknap, evidence that Pegasus
Gold Inc., a multinational cyanide heap-leach gold mine,
threatens water quality and the health of humans and wildlife
(not to mention Native cultural and sacred sites) in the
Little Rocky Mountains, has finally been recognized by the
Billings Federal Court. Now, the former Canadian-based
multinational must pay a landmark $36.7 million dollar
pollution settlement over the next five years to come into
compliance with state and federal water quality laws.
According to the Billings Gazette,
Pegasus violated federal and state laws by discharging acidic
metal-laden wastewater from its mines in the Little Rocky
Mountains into water draining into the Milk and Missouri
Rivers. The maximum fine could have exceeded $100 million.
Still, the settlement is the largest a mining outfit has had
to pay in Montana’s history. The Gazette reports,
"The mine must expand their mine waste water treatment
and put up a $32 million bond to ensure that is done; pay a
$2 million civil penalty that will be evenly divided between
the state and federal governments; pay $1 million to the Fort
Belknap tribes in partial settlement of their separate
claims; and perform supplemental environmental projects
estimated to cost $1.7 million."
Back to business as usual, the state
gave the go-ahead this October for extending the life of the
Zortman mine five to eight more years, and its neighbor three
miles away, the Landusky mine, for another year. According to
Sandi Olsen of the Montana Department of Environmental
Quality (DEQ), total disturbance will increase to 2,195
acres; an additional 7.6 million tons of ore and 7 million
tons of waste rock will be mined from the Landusky mine; 80
million tons of ore and 60 million tons of waste rock will be
mined from the Zortman mine.
That the Racicot administration has now
allowed for an expansion of the mine, to more than double its
size, comes as no surprise to environmental activists and the
Fort Belknap community who’ve documented the mine’s
unchecked, flagrant violations for years.
To tribal activists, the record of slow
or non-existent regulatory action from the Department of
State Lands, the Bureau of Land Management, and the
Environmental Protection Agency has a long, tired history
which has consistently pointed to a disturbing trend of
discrimination in the region.
It has led some, like Jim Jensen,
President of the Montana Environmental Information Center
(MEIC), to declare "There’s such an extraordinary
pattern here of failure to enforce that it seems to me that
at some point down the road there should be some discussion
of whether or not there has actually been a conspiracy
between this company and some individuals or agencies."
In 1991 the Billings Gazette
quoted Jensen and Wil Patric, of the Mineral Policy Center,
as citing 31 leaks, spills, and other environmental problems
at the ZL mine over 13 years that allegedly went unpunished
by department officials.
Indeed, since its opening in 1979 and
its expansion through ten amendments to the original
permit—none with the benefit of an Environmental Impact
Statement (EIS) until now—the Zortman-Landusky mine has
been plagued by an extraordinary number of serious problems
and noncompliances. The litany includes cyanide leaks and
spills, contaminated groundwater, a ruined aquifer,
heap-leach pad mass stability failures, and bird and wildlife
deaths. Prior to this year’s settlement, only one
$15,000 fine by the Water Quality Bureau in 1982 was ever
levied against ZL, when cyanide appeared in nearby domestic
water supply taps.
In late August 1993, the Department of
Health and Environmental Sciences filed a lawsuit against
Pegasus, alleging the mining company was violating the state
water quality law. Robert J. Thompson, special assistant to
the attorney general who handled the case for DHES, stated in
the Phillip County News that the decision to file suit
was prompted by the actions of two groups on the reservation,
Red Thunder and Island Mountain Protectors (IMP).
Earlier these two tribal groups had
filed citizen suits charging Pegasus with violating the
Federal Clean Water Act. By DHES filing suit "on behalf
of such concerned citizens," they effectively knocked
RTI and IMP out of the courtroom. RTI’s lawyer, Don
Marble, believed this lightened the pressure and enforcement
of Pegasus in court.
In the article, Thompson acknowledged
that the violations cited in the suit had been public
knowledge for some time and that Zortman Mining, Inc. had
been making an effort to deal with them "but not
entirely to our satisfaction." And yet DHES still needed
the actions of RTI and IMP to prompt them to file suit.
Eric Williams, public relations
coordinator for Pegasus at the time, relayed the
company’s intent to work with the state and added,
"We weren’t surprised" by the suit. He added,
"We are going to do everything we can within reason not
only to continue these operations but to obtain our mine life
extension permit." Williams continued, "We see the
request for those permits (discharge permits which strangely
allow for the seepage of wastes) more as a policy change by
the agencies. The agencies have known for some time and in
some instances for several years that we have those minimal
discharges up there…up until this point they haven’t
said ‘you need those…discharge permits’."
In early 1994 BLM officials admitted
what Indian activist groups already suspected; that acids and
metals were damaging all drainages emanating from the mine.
RTI had obtained documentation showing that sulfide
ores—which cause acid mine drainage—had been mined,
despite the fact that the ZL’s permit was for oxide ore
only. Pegasus was neither permitted nor bonded for mining
sulfide ores and the operation was not designed to handle
It should be noted that the ZL has the
distinction of being the lowest grade gold mine in the U.S.
This means that it is disturbing more ground for minute
quantities of gold than any other mine (more than 60 tons of
earth must be excavated for every ounce of gold that is
recovered). Despite Pegasus’s record of unchecked
hazards, the recent approval of its expansion allows sulfide
ores to be mined—"officially."
Olsen said, having completed the EIS
for Pegasus expansion in March, the DEQ’s role is to
monitor the mine to make sure it complies with state law. She
said that source controls (like capping and soil barriers)
and water treatment plans are in operation to prevent acid
mine drainage from occurring. When asked about the risk of
AMD in mining sulfides, Olsen offered, "it depends on
the sulfides and their reactivity." But what about AMD
problems that went unheeded in the past? "We thought
there was less of it [AMD] than there actually was," she
For tribal activists, it seems that in
spite of their efforts to diligently document violations of
the mine and prepare litigation, Pegasus continues to get
away with murder. Ever-present is the fear that Pegasus could
pull out after gold deposits dry up, allowing the ZL mines to
go bankrupt, and leave a superfund site in their wake. To add
to the frustration, the Clean Water Initiative (I22) failed
to win enough votes on November’s ballot (the mining
industry having raised the lion’s share of 2.2 million
in its campaign against the initiative).
Gary Buchanan, of Montanans for Clean
Water, said I22 was launched after the 1995 legislature
rewrote several laws to weaken state water-quality standards
for some 100 cancer-causing materials. I22 would have
required greater amounts of carcinogens, toxins, and other
pollutants to be removed from mine run-off before discharging
into water supplies.
In August 1994, I accompanied a Denver
Post reporter to Zortman, a small town on the south side
of the reservation consisting of a bar, diner, motel, trailer
park, and store.
That day we interviewed the business
owners of Zortman—all of whom said they derived 99
percent of their business from the mine (1 percent from
tourists, hunters, and government employees). They made it
clear that without Pegasus, Zortman would be a ghost town.
As a summation of public sentiment, the
storeowner pointed at a cap he sold which read: Save
Montana’s Endangered Species: Ranchers, Miners, Loggers,
and Sportsmen. Zortman’s inhabitants claimed that there
had never been any cyanide spills at the mine, thanks to over
200 monitor wells, and that there was no problem with heavy
metals. Any problems in the past with old mine tailings
floating down King Creek had been graciously cleaned up,
courtesy of Pegasus. They derided RTI as a radical group, or
as another so eloquently put it, "assholes with
The store-owner stated proudly that the
mine extracts 100,000 ounces of gold each year. "People
need logs for their houses and gold for their rings," he
concluded. Eighty-five percent of our nation’s gold
supply is used to fill this most indispensable of
needs—jewelry. Walking back to the car, I read the
bumper stickers plastered on the many parked pick-ups.
"If it can’t be grown, mine it!" "What
would the U.S. do without Zortman?"
The Red Road
The traditionalist peoples of Fort
Belknap voice that the significance of the Little Rocky
Mountains rests upon the idea of the sacred. The mountains
provide a physical landscape upon which the human animal can
communicate with the spirit world.
Virgil McConnell, an Assiniboine elder
and healer, told how sometimes someone may come and ask you
to help them and you’re not sure what medicines they
need. So you sweat or go to a lodge and pray. Still, nothing
may come. So you have a dream and in it you may see the
medicine or hear a voice.
Once Virgil heard a voice and all it
said was, "Go to the mountains." So he went. He
prayed and fasted for three days. On the last day a wolf came
to him with the medicine in its front paws and offered it to
him. This was the cure.
Virgil wants to protect the sacred
sites in the Little Rockies. The mine is steadily encroaching
over the mountain range and threatening an abundance of
spiritual resources. Old vision quest sites and fasting
shelters are being obliterated. Animals who bring messages
and guidance are being poisoned, as are the healing waters
and medicinal plants.
"All the knowledge you need is up
in the mountains and will never die as long as the spirits
there live on," Virgil has told me. "The only thing
we pray for is to let the Great Spirit open their eyes to see
the destruction, and soften their hearts so they can feel the
utter pain our great mother earth has to endure because of
greed and dishonesty."
He pointed out a fork on top of the
Sundance lodge, above the Thunderbird’s nest. It
represents two roads; one is the shorter, easier path, the
longer fork is the road of hardship but great strength. This
is the Red Road, the road of resistance, whereupon the
traditionalist peoples of the Fort Belknap reservation
continue today to fight for their way of life.
Deirdre Guthrie is a freelance writer