The snowcapped Cabinet Mountains tower over the Kootenai River Valley outside of Libby, Mont. A mining company is suing the state over its decision that the firm must pay for past cleanup costs before pursuing new mines in the area. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

This post has been updated.

It lasted just 21 seconds, but an exchange last fall between Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and the chief executive of an Idaho-based mining company tied to major toxic contamination in the Little Rocky Mountains is raising eyebrows.

“Hello, Secretary. Good to see you again. Phil Baker with Hecla Mining Company,” said the executive, Phillips S. Baker Jr. “I’m here to tell you and others about the impediments to mining from the permitting regime we have.”

Before he could explain the impediments, Zinke responded: “On behalf of the United States government, we apologize.”

Some conservationists are calling it another example of the deference the Trump administration gives to excavation companies, but an Interior Department spokeswoman, noting the laughter in response to Zinke’s remark, said it was a joke.

The exchange was captured on videotape that was obtained through a Freedom of Information request to Interior filed by the Western Values Project, a nonprofit watchdog group located in Zinke’s hometown of Whitefish, Mont.

Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift ripped the group’s interpretation of the video.

“Western Values Project is a classic dark money organization, which is run by former Democratic Party members and campaign staff,” Swift wrote in a statement. “Unable to have an adult conversation about policy issues, they have resorted to sending edited clips of the secretary making a joke at a roundtable discussion.”

Hecla, which is seeking to operate two new mines in Montana, was recently labeled a “bad actor” by the state Department of Environmental Quality because of Baker’s ties to the defunct Pegasus Gold of Spokane, Wash.

Pegasus operated three Montana mines, including a gold mine near an Indian reservation. The company, for which Baker was chief financial officer, went bankrupt in 1998. That left the state and federal governments to foot the bill for a $100 million cleanup of cyanide, arsenic and other contaminants that polluted adjacent land and waterways.

Although Hecla was not involved at those sites, Baker’s role at Pegasus placed his current company in violation of a 1989 statute that blocks individuals connected to mines with outstanding debts from operating other mines. Conservation groups recently alerted state environmental officials.

About a week ago, DEQ Director Tom Livers responded with a certified letter to Baker. It gave Hecla 30 days to resolve the “bad actor” claim. Hecla could also be required to reimburse up to $30 million for pollution cleanup costs.

Hecla and its subsidiaries countered Friday by filing a lawsuit against Montana state regulators. Lawyers told the Associated Press that the state erroneously equates Baker and Pegasus, and assumes that Baker had a say in the operation.

“Mr. Baker neither directed nor controlled mining operations at any of the Pegasus entities’ mines,” wrote the subsidiaries’ attorney, William Mercer.

The listening session at which Zinke and Baker spoke happened in October, months before Montana called Hecla a bad actor. The secretary’s response at a White House meeting, “Cut the Red Tape: Liberating America from Bureaucracy,” underscored the favorable status that energy and mining industries, including those accused of polluting, enjoy under the Trump administration.

It’s not known whether Zinke was aware of Baker’s ties to a company responsible for pollution that cost tens of millions of dollars to clean up.

But Zinke is well aware of Hecla. He has visited and toured the company’s mining operations and expressed support for its intent to expand them in the state’s northwest, according to numerous news reports.

Hecla bought the Montanore and Rock Creek mines in the area for $30 million about two years ago. Like Zinke, two federal lawmakers support the venture and wrote a letter to President Trump asking him to relax federal regulations guarding against pollution and potential harm to endangered animals.

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