Mining Company Says Court Decision Won’t Stop Development

Lewis and Clark County judge overturned DNRC water permit for Rock Creek Mine

By Justin Franz
Proposed site of the Rock Creek Mine. Courtesy photo

Officials with the Idaho-based company hoping to open a massive copper and silver mine near Noxon said the recent decision by a Lewis and Clark County judge to overturn a Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation water permit will not slow their efforts.

Hecla Mining Company spokesperson Luke Russell said the DNRC water permit that was struck down by Judge Kathy Seeley would not impact the company’s upcoming exploration work at the Rock Creek Mine and that it expects the state will appeal the decision.

“This will not impact the exploration phase of the project,” Russell said.

The U.S. Forest Service is currently working on a final record of decision regarding exploration at the proposed Rock Creek Mine and once that is in hand the company will start building an adit from the surface to the ore deposit, Russell said.

Earthjustice filed the lawsuit against the DNRC on behalf of four environmental groups, including the Clark Fork Coalition, Rock Creek Alliance, Earthworks and the Montana Environmental Information Center.

In 2016, the DNRC issued a water use permit to Hecla and ruled that the proposed mine, which is projected to produce up to 10,000 tons of ore daily, would not negatively impact the environment. But environmental groups have argued that the mine would drain water from wilderness streams and harm bull trout and other native fish. The groups filed a complaint against the DNRC’s decision and an administrative hearing was held regarding the claims in 2018. During that hearing, Hecla’s Montana subsidiary, RC Resources Inc., filed a successful motion to dismiss the claims. The environmental groups then filed a lawsuit against DNRC in Lewis and Clark County District Court. The court ruled the DNRC had indeed violated the law.

If the judgment stands it could have wide-ranging impacts on future water permits issued by DNRC. In the past, permits were issued primarily based on water quantity instead of water quality.

The state has 60 days from the judge’s decision to file a formal appeal.

The earth below the Cabinet Mountains has long been eyed by mining companies as a prime source of copper and silver. Since the 1980s, numerous companies have tried to bring two different mines — Rock Creek near Noxon and Montanore near Libby — to production but have been delayed by a gamut of legal, environmental and economic forces. Proponents of the projects have said opening either of the Rock Creek or Montanore mines would result in an economic boon for one of the most depressed areas of Montana.

Taken together, both Montanore and Rock Creek have the potential to 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. Many consider the combined deposit beneath the Cabinet Mountains to be one of the largest untapped copper and silver resources on Earth.

Russell said the mines could operate for upwards of 20 to 30 years. Although the prices of copper and silver are constantly changing, Russell said the company is not concerned about what the market for the minerals is doing today.

“These are 20 to 30 year projects and so we’re looking at the long-term viability of these projects, but we’re really optimistic,” he said.

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