Opponents and proponents of a proposed copper and silver mine in Sanders County are both celebrating after the U.S. Forest Service announced it would issue only a partial approval for the project in an upcoming Record of Decision.
Conservation groups say that the decision to withhold a full development permit for the Rock Creek Mine proves that a massive industrial project should not be developed beneath a wilderness area for fear that it will dewater the land above. But officials with Hecla Mining Company, the Coeur d’Alene-based mining company heading up the project, said that a phased approval has always been part of the plan.
In a letter dated Oct. 31, Deputy Regional Forester David E. Schmid announced that the final Record of Decision would only approve phase 1 of the Rock Creek Project, allowing the construction of a mine adit and an environmental evaluation of the site, which is located near Noxon.
“While models and estimates of groundwater conditions can be developed based on the best available information, actual knowledge of underground conditions may not be fully known, or knowable, until underground operations are underway and additional data can be collected,” Schmid wrote.
Upon completion and evaluation of phase 1, the Forest Service would consider approving phase 2, the actual development of the mine.
In a press release, a coalition of conservation groups called the partial approval the “latest in a series of setbacks” for the project. In October, the Clark Fork Coalition, Earthworks, Montana Environmental Information Center, Rock Creek Alliance and Save Our Cabinets asked the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to cancel Hecla’s permits for Rock Creek and the nearby Montanore Project because of a “bad actor” provision in state law. The coalition of groups stated that Hecla should not receive permits until one of its executives, CEO Phillips Baker, is held responsible for the environmental cleanup of a mine he previously oversaw in eastern Montana.
“All the evidence to date shows that these mines cannot be excavated under the Wilderness without lasting harm to the overlying streams and the fish and wildlife that find refuge there,” said Bonnie Gestring, northwest program director for Earthworks. “That’s something the agency simply can’t ignore.”
“This mine would be a disaster for the small population of grizzly bears that inhabit the Cabinet Mountains,” said Andrea Santarsiere, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “We are glad to hear that the Forest Service is taking a step back to consider the damage this mine may cause.”
But Hecla officials, who stand by their claims that the mine will not damage the wilderness above, read the letter differently. Luke Russell, vice president of external affairs for Hecla, said the mining company always expected the Forest Service to issue their approval in phases.
“It’s business as usual for us,” he said.
Russell said Hecla officials remain hopeful that a final Record of Decision will be released in early 2018.
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, and Mines Management, which owned the Montanore Mine project south of Libby. Hecla shuttered the Troy Mine but has vowed to develop Rock Creek and Montanore. 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.