The final environmental impact statement on a massive copper and silver mine in Lincoln County is inching closer to completion. But despite having the finish line in sight, supporters of the Montanore Mine are chastising the Kootenai National Forest for extending the comment period on the draft EIS by two weeks at the request of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Government regulators are not the only group slowing the project. The company heading up the development, Spokane-based Mines Management, Inc., is in a legal battle with a group of investors, including former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, that says it controls mining claims needed by the company to begin extracting copper and silver.
Earlier this year, Schweitzer and Optima, Inc. filed a $10 million compensation claim against Mines Management. Schweitzer said he was simply trying to help move the project forward, but Mines Management CEO Glenn Dobbs called the claim “extortion.”
“I’d much rather pay attorneys the money to dispute this claim rather than pay people for pulling a stunt like this,” Dobbs said last week.
In July, Mines Management asked a federal judge in Missoula to throw out the claim. In late August, U.S. District Judge Dana L. Christensen issued an order that said “though the amount of and basis for the statement of claim are more than suspect, the Court concludes it is neither redundant, scandalous, nor an insufficient defense.” Now, the court will appoint a jury of mining and geological experts to determine the validity of the claims and their potential value. A scheduling conference has been set for Oct. 16.
Once the legal claims are out of the way, Dobbs said Mines Management could focus on developing the project after the U.S. Forest Service issues its record of decision on the project. On Aug. 13, the draft EIS was issued and a 30-day comment period began. However, on Aug. 25, the EPA asked for and received a two-week extension on the comment period. In an email between the Kootenai National Forest’s Chris Savage and Steve Gunderson, head of the group Montanore Positive Action Committee, the forest supervisor noted that the draft EIS was more than 2,300 pages and that the additional two weeks would let the EPA give a “good, thorough review.”
Gunderson called the extended comment period an “unnecessary delay” and noted that the federal agencies have had a decade to review the project. Montana Congressman Steve Daines, who toured the site on Aug. 29, echoed Gunderson’s frustration.
“Delays from federal agencies have repeatedly held up development of this mine and dragged the permitting process out for nearly a decade – holding up hundreds of jobs in Lincoln County and significant economic benefits to the area,” Daines said. “The EPA and other involved agencies must end the excessive delays and stop obstructing progress on this important job-creating project.”
Dobbs said once the project is permitted, one of three things could happen: Mines Management could move forward with the development and operate the mine itself; it could look for another mining company to partner with; or it could sell the project at a permitted and ready-to-go mine. He said the one requirement of any sale or joint venture is that the project starts immediately.
“We’re going to do everything humanly possible to get the project going as soon as possible because we have a strong commitment to the people of Libby,” Dobbs said.
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