As Prospects Improve, Litigation Still Threatens Mining Projects

Environmental groups vow to stall Montanore, Rock Creek if projects receive final approval from state and federal regulators

By Justin Franz
Montanore Mine. Beacon File Photo

For more than a decade, the Montanore and Rock Creek mine projects in Northwest Montana have slowly struggled to get off the ground.

While mine bosses touted the hundreds of jobs the projects would bring to the area, many believed it would be years before people were hired to harvest copper and silver from the earth, as both projects were delayed by a lack of government permits and capital.

But within 24 hours in late March, both projects took sudden leaps forward, and proponents and opponents alike believe miners could be moving underground sooner rather than later.

On March 26, the Kootenai National Forest issued a final environmental impact statement and draft record of decision tentatively approving the Montanore Mine project. The project’s owner, Mines Management of Spokane, Washington, said that if the final record of decision is released this summer, at least 30 people could be working underground by the end of the year to start developing the mine.

Then, less than 24 hours after Mines Management got the news they had been waiting years to receive, the Hecla Mining Company announced that it was buying the Revett Mining Company and its Rock Creek project. While Revett has struggled to stay afloat financially in recent years, CEO John Shanahan said Hecla is a large company with the “capabilities to get this project across the finish line.”

While local officials in Lincoln County lauded the news that new jobs could be coming to the economically depressed area, environmental groups have raised concerns about two major mines being built underneath the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness.

“The Cabinet Mountains could be hit hard from both sides (if these projects are approved and built),” said Chris Brick, science director of the Clark Fork Coalition in Missoula.

Located along the border of Lincoln and Sanders counties, just beneath the Cabinet Mountains, lies two of the world’s largest undeveloped copper and silver deposits. According to Mines Management CEO Glenn Dobbs, both mines could produce more than 500 million ounces of silver and 4 billion pounds of copper in their lifetime. The two deposits are separated by about 7,000 feet of earth and a fault line, suggesting that at one time it was actually one ore body.

Mining companies began exploring the Cabinet Mountains for copper and silver in the 1960s and 1970s and started developing the Montanore and Rock Creek projects in the 1980s. Both projects changed hands over the years and by the mid-2000s ended up with Mines Management and Revett as owners, respectively. Since then, both companies have been trying to line up the correct state and federal permits to start mining.

But environmental groups have promised to fight the projects every step of the way, citing a variety of issues. Mary Costello is the executive director of the Rock Creek Alliance and said that either mine could have “massive, long-term impacts” on area wildlife and water. Costello, who lives in Trout Creek, said she is particularly concerned about the dewatering of wilderness streams, adding that it could impact endangered bull trout. Critics say that both mines could have permanent impacts on the ground water table and leave some stream beds dry year round.

The mining companies say there are ways to reduce the impacts the projects will have on the water table and that the environmental impact statements address those issues. But Brick, the scientist with the Clark Fork Coalition, said it is hard to predict what the groundwater would do in that area because it is contained within fractured bedrock. She said it would be years before anyone would know the true impacts to the groundwater.

Costello also worried that allowing the construction of two mines on either side of the wilderness would create noise and light pollution that would impact the visitor experience for those who venture onto the protected land. She said her group would bring litigation forward if either project gets final approval and criticized the U.S. Forest Service for how it’s handled the permitting process.

“They’re suppose to be land stewards, so how can they allow these mines to move forward if they’re going to dewater wilderness streams,” Costello said. “These mines will turn a wilderness area into an industrial zone.”

But officials with both Mines Management and Revett disagree and say that all environmental concerns would be addressed in the final and supplemental environmental impact statements due this year.

Dobbs, the CEO of Mines Management, said he was not surprised that the Rock Creek Alliance was already planning on litigating the Montanore project and called it a “knee-jerk reaction.”

“The Rock Creek Alliance has established itself as a group that is anti-mining and anti-business,” Dobbs said. “I find it fascinating that they would promise litigation when they haven’t even read the final environmental impact statement or draft record of decision.”

Shanahan, the CEO of Revett, agreed with Dobbs that the Rock Creek Alliance’s claims were unfounded and said the company’s Troy Mine proves that. The Troy Mine was first operated from 1981 to 1993 and reopened by Revett in 2005. The mine was shut down in 2012 following a series of underground rock falls and Hecla has announced plans to permanently close the mine if it completes the purchase of Revett.

“The Troy Mine has been there for 30 years and it has had no impact on the wilderness whatsoever,” Shanahan said. “It’s a showcase of what can be done and it’s a direct analog for Rock Creek.”