The Center for Public Integrity published a story this week in partnership with Mother Jones about the ‘woefully inadequate’ amount of cleanup funds set aside to deal with leftover pollution at the former Pegasus gold mine on the Fort Belknap Reservation.

Author and investigative reporter Mark Olalde, fellow at the American University has been studying the problem for many years.

“We know that hard rock mining has a large environmental impact, but what seemed to be lacking was how widespread that issue was,” said Olalde, “In my story, a lot of the facts and figures I cite are actually government figures. There are levels of water pollution and toxic waste release that the EPA or the Department of the Interior themselves built, so it’s not an issue that we were completely unfamiliar with, but I was looking for a mine that would tell the story of how underfunded we are to clean up these sites and how bad the pollution can get if these regulators and companies are not acting responsibly.”

To Olalde, the Zortman Landusky was the ideal example.

“This old Pegasus mine embodied all the issues we’re talking about,” he said. “To date, it’s cost more that $75 million to clean up and the Department of Environmental Quality expects to fork over nearly $2 million a year in perpetuity for water cleanup with much of that come from Montana taxpayers as well as federal funds. Now, the pollution has seeped into the Fort Belknap Indian communities, communities that never received the full benefits of the mine. But now, 20 years after the mine has closed, they’re the ones dealing with the pollution to this day.”

Olalde said Pegasus did comply with federal regulations by setting aside funds for cleanup.

“Pegasus did put up the money that the government asked them to for cleanup, but it was nowhere near enough,” he said. “Many times these mines are near communities that aren’t as enfranchised to fight back, or don’t have the same resources to sue, but reforms didn’t come about internationally until the 1960’s or 1970’s, so this whole issue is relatively young in the history of industrialization.”

Olalde said there isn’t enough firm scientific data to place the blame of disease and environmental destruction squarely on the mines themselves.

“Anecdotally, we hear stories of cancers or respiratory issues or developmental issues, but we can’t say for certain that local mining caused that,” he said. “Near the Fort Belknap community, I’ve heard o ton of stories about animals dying off, fish kills and things like that, but tying all that one to one to development is a piece of this issue that researchers have been chasing.”

Olalde said the recent election that featured Initiative 186 brought the issue into clear focus.

“The purpose of that initiative was to say if a mining company expects its operation to have no end date and to pollute water forever, we aren’t going to give you a permit,” he said. “The attacks on that initiative were funded 99 percent by the mining industry and the initiative lost, so the Zortman Landusky mine that will take another $2 million a year to clean up, there’s no real end date on that.”

Olalde said the cleanup funds set aside for coal mines are also inadequate, according to his research.

“We’re also seeing issues in coal with acid mine drainage and also not seeing an end date for the costs to treat that water,” he said.

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