Mining Company Seeks to Fend off Schweitzer’s Group in Court

Group led by former governor say they have claim to Montanore Mine

By MATTHEW BROWN, Associated press

BILLINGS — Attorneys for a Washington state company proposing a major new mine in Montana will ask a court-appointed panel of experts next week to reject a $10 million compensation request from a group that includes former Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

Schweitzer is an investor in Optima, Inc., which holds mining claims, or rights, that stand in the way of the Montanore silver and copper mine near Libby.

U.S. District Judge Dana L. Christensen issued a preliminary condemnation order on Optima’s mining claims last year, making it eligible for compensation under state and federal law. The group’s attorneys have said in court filings that $10 million is an appropriate amount given that it will lose access to its claims.

But Montanore sponsor Mines Management Inc. of Spokane has disputed that figure and said Optima is entitled to minimal compensation since it has not proved its claims are of any value.

A three-day trial begins Wednesday before an expert commission appointed by Christensen to resolve the dispute begins Wednesday in Missoula.

Christensen already rejected many of Optima’s central arguments, diminishing the prospects that the group will prevail in his courtroom.

The judge has described Optima’s $10 million compensation request as “more than suspect.” He’s ordered the expert commission to deliver its report to him by May 16 before he renders a final decision.

Schweitzer has been named as a potential witness but it’s unclear if he will take the stand. The former two-term Democratic governor became chairman of Billings-based Stillwater Mining Co. after leaving office in 2013. Stillwater is not involved in the Montanore claims.

Other members of Optima include Bruce Ramsey, a former U.S. Forest Service supervisor for the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, mining industry veteran Frank Duval, and Arnold Bakie, the man who originally controlled the mining claims.

The Montanore mine holds an estimated 1.7 billion pounds of copper and 230 million ounces of silver beneath an area that includes the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, according to Mines Management.

The project received preliminary approval last week from the U.S. Forest Service.