The Coeur d’Alene, Idaho-based company that purchased its second major mine project in Northwest Montana within a year has vowed to continue exploration development of both the Rock Creek and Montanore mines.
Supporters of the proposed copper and silver mines say the development of either would be a boon to the struggling local economy, which has one of the highest jobless rates in the state. But environmental groups worry about the impacts the mines will have on the wilderness above, saying the projects could dewater mountain streams for centuries.
On May 24, Hecla Mining Company announced it was acquiring Spokane-based Mines Management, which has been trying to permit the Montanore Mine south of Libby for more than a decade. In the proposed deal, Mines Management shareholders will be paid in Hecla stock.
The deal still has to be formally approved by Mines Management’s shareholders, although CEO and Chairman Glenn Dobbs said he doesn’t believe there will be any opposition. Officials expect the sale to be completed during the third quarter.
“Hecla is the logical company to move Montanore forward, with its close proximity to Rock Creek, as well as its similar geology and scale,” said Hecla President and CEO Phillips S. Baker in a press release. “We have considerable experience operating the Greens Creek (Mine) in a National Monument which will, combined with our financial strength and commitment to the community and environment, help Montanore reach its full potential.”
Hecla was founded in 1891 and currently operates mines in Idaho, Alaska, Mexico and Quebec, Canada. In 2015, Hecla expanded into Montana when it purchased the Revett Mining Company, Inc., which owned the Troy Mine and the Rock Creek Project. Hecla permanently shuttered the Troy Mine while vowing to move forward with the Rock Creek Project that is still in the federal permitting process.
Hecla spokesperson Monique Hayes said the company plans on simultaneously doing exploration development work at both mines. She said the company would complete the permitting of Montanore this year and hopes to begin evaluation work sometime next year.
Dobbs, who plans to retire once the sale goes through, said having the Montanore and Rock Creek projects under the same umbrella makes logistical sense.
“I can’t think of a company more ideally suited to take these two projects to production,” Dobbs said.
The two 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.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, the previous owners of the projects, Noranda Minerals Corp. and ASARCO Inc., explored the idea of mining the two ore bodies as one, via the Montanore adit that was already constructed. Documents obtained by the Beacon in 2015 through a Freedom of Information Act request show that the idea was exhaustively studied in 1989, 1995 and 2000. However, an environmental impact statement for the Rock Creek Mine issued in 2001 ruled that combining the projects would not offer any significant environmental advantages.
Despite the two projects now being under the same ownership, Hayes said the company plans to develop the two mines independently of each other.
Environmental groups worry about the impacts either mine will have on the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness. Earthworks filed a lawsuit earlier this year against the U.S. Forest Service for approving parts of the Montanore project. Earthworks’ Bonnie Gestring said federal approval of the Montanore project violates state law and that she and others are worried about dewatering that could impact the wilderness.
“Our concerns about these mining projects remain regardless of what company is developing them,” Grestring said.
Clarification: This story has been edited to note that the company promised to continue exploration development of the two mines to determine what type of full-scale development and operation is feasible in the future.