In the most economically depressed area of Montana, any proposal that promises hundreds of jobs is going to have its share of supporters. And two weeks ago in Libby, supporters of Montanore Mine came out in force: determined and angry.
More than 500 people in a town of fewer than 3,000 showed up for a pro-mining rally on March 31 at Fireman’s Park in Libby. Their frustration stems from what they perceive as an endless waiting game in getting approval for Montanore Mine, as well as approval for nearby Rock Creek Mine, two of the world’s largest silver-copper deposits.
Both mines, however, call for tunneling underneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness area southwest of Libby, which has led to stiff opposition from environmentalists and a good deal of bureaucratic wrangling in order to achieve approval.
“To put it quite bluntly, I think the system’s broke,” Libby Mayor Doug Roll said, adding that he has seen the decline of the natural resource industry in Lincoln County over the last three decades. “The EPA, the Forest Service – it’s very frustrating. Who do you talk to if you want to get something done? What can you do?”
“We’ve been going down this road for 30 years,” he added.
Montanore Mine, the focus of the March 31 rally, has been in the works on some level for decades. The deposit was discovered in 1983, and is thought to contain 230 million ounces of silver and 2 billion pounds of copper. Noranda Minerals Corp. acquired all necessary permits to develop the mine in 1993, but low metal prices led the company to withdraw from the project in 2002. Mines Management Inc. of Spokane then took over.
The Rock Creek Alliance, an environmental group that formed in 1996 in opposition to the Rock Creek Mine, has also fought against Montanore, arguing that development around and underneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness would be devastating to the ecosystem.
Rock Creek Mine, owned by Revett Minerals, is located just southwest of Montanore Mine in neighboring Sanders County, near the Clark Fork River. Revett Minerals also owns the Troy Mine, which is the only operating mine in Lincoln County.
The Cabinet Mountains Wilderness area is home to grizzly bears, lynx and numerous other wild animals, along with geographical features such as alpine lakes and meadows. Jim Costello of the Rock Creek Alliance acknowledged the large showing of support at the March 31 rally, but said “not all of the community of Libby supports the project.”
“It’s very controversial; we recognize this,” Costello said. “I’m from Sanders County and I recognize how controversial this is.”
A draft environmental impact statement was released for public review in 2009 for Montanore, and subsequently a supplemental EIS was requested. Eric Klepfer, a contractor for Mines Management overseeing environmental permitting, said he is working with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and U.S. Forest Service to address remaining concerns.
Among those concerns are issues pertaining to water and air quality, as well as wetlands impacts and mitigations. Klepfer hopes to have the final details of the supplemental EIS sorted out by May, at which time it will become available for public review. Then a final EIS will be completed.
“We’re providing the agencies the last touchups,” Klepfer said.
No matter what results from the environmental assessment process, Costello doesn’t believe mining will be acceptable under any circumstances. He cited fragile grizzly bear and bull trout habitat, along with the overall pristine character of the region.
“At this point in time, I cannot anticipate anything that could be done that would make these projects palatable,” Costello said.
Lincoln County Commissioner Tony Berget said he’s frustrated to “live in a sea of forest and minerals,” yet the unemployment rate is the highest in the state at 19.1 percent at last count. He understands the environmental concerns over mining, but said extreme efforts have been made to accommodate those concerns.
“A lot of mistakes have been made in the past,” Berget said, in regards to mining. “But we’ve been learning from our mistakes and trying to do things in a very safe way.”
“Everything we use everyday is either grown or mined,” Berget said. “If it’s not mined here, it’s mined in Third World countries where there are no regulations and the environment is really ruined.”
Berget said he and his fellow Lincoln County commissioners are considering a trip to the Environmental Protection Agency’s regional headquarters in Denver to address any concerns the EPA has and to encourage the project to move forward.
“We have a call in right now to Denver,” Berget said. “County commissioners have more than once contemplated making that trip.”
Even if Montanore is eventually given the green light, Berget said: “We can almost guarantee someone will file suit.” Klepfer is more optimistic about the project getting underway in a timely fashion, though he concedes there is a possibility of litigation from environmental groups.
“It’s always possible,” Klepfer said.
Klepfer said Montanore would provide roughly 300 full-time jobs and up to 500 more during construction, which would last a couple of years. Klepfer was pleased by the rally’s large turnout.
“For us seeing that the community took the time and so many people came out – to see that kind of outpouring of support certainly energizes us,” Klepfer said.
Mayor Roll was encouraged by the rally as well, but as far as Montanore becoming a reality, he’ll believe it when he sees it. He said he’s been disappointed by what he feels is a lack of support from the state’s federal delegation: “They don’t care.”
Roll said Congressman Denny Rehberg was the only one of the state’s three federal delegates to respond to inquiries about attending the rally. Rehberg sent a representative who promised a listening session, Roll said.
“We don’t need another listening session; we need someone to do something,” he added.
With unemployment soaring and the local workforce looking for jobs elsewhere, Roll said he’s prepared to do whatever it takes to make Montanore happen.
“I think the gloves are going to come off,” he said. “I think we’re going to be quite blunt with them. Being nice hasn’t worked over the years. We need to get some action – something to get this thing going.
“There’s no words to describe how important it would be to have this mine.”
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