Conservation groups across the state on Thursday lauded a U.S. Forest Service decision to withhold a permit for the full development of a proposed mine under the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, saying the decision will help preserve water quality and protect the local grizzly bear population.
In a decision released this week, David Schmid, the deputy regional forester with the Northern Region office in Missoula, said the agency will only approve Phase 1 activities associated with the controversial Rock Creek Mine.
Schmid said uncertainty over the mine’s environmental impacts prompted him to withhold full approval. However, he said, Phase 2 approval could come at a later time once more underground data can be collected.
“Underground mine development occurs in rock formations that are generally hundreds to thousands of feet below the surface,” Schmid said. “The inaccessibility limits the amount of data initially available, which means a degree of uncertainty is inherent in evaluating the specific environmental impacts related to groundwater prior to actual mine development.”
Schmid said proceeding with Phase 1 construction of the adit leading to the mine’s ore body will generate the hydrological and geological data needed to make an informed decision regarding Phase 2.
Environmental groups across the state praised the decision as a temporary win for water quality, wildlife habitat and wilderness preservation.
“The last thing anyone wants to see on public lands is another mining mess causing irreversible harm and costing taxpayers millions of dollars to clean up,” said Karen Knudsen, executive director of the Clark Fork Coalition in Missoula.
Other environmental groups have also argued that an increase in people and mining activity would up the pressure on the local grizzly bear population. But Schmid said that concern had already been addressed and that mortality reduction efforts will be required.
Mary Costello, executive director of the Rock Creek Alliance, was hoping the Forest Service would deny the entire project. Like other conservationists, she’s worried about the project’s long-term impacts and the company’s poor environmental track record.
“We’re pleased that the Forest Service will not permit the full mine,” said Costello. “But allowing the first phase of the mine to proceed would needlessly jeopardize wilderness waters and threaten bull trout and grizzly bears for the development of a mine that the agency recognizes cannot meet federal and state laws.”
The Rock Creek Mine is one of two copper and silver mines proposed by Hecla Mining Company based in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
Last week, conservationists urged the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to suspend the company’s mining permits, saying Hecla is prohibited from mining in the state under its “bad actor” provisions.
Under those provisions, individuals of past companies that failed to complete required reclamation work are prohibited from undertaking new projects in the state. The clause alludes to the state’s past where mining companies reaped millions of dollars in profit and left behind an environmental mess, costing taxpayers even more to clean up.
The conservation groups opposed to the project said Hecla’s president and CEO previously served as a top officer of Pegasus Gold Inc., which went bankrupt in the 1990s. That left the public on the hook for tens of millions of dollars in cleanup costs at the Zortman-Landusky, Basin Creek and Beal Mountain mines.
“These wilderness streams provide important refuge for native bull trout,” said David Brooks, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited. “We don’t want to see decades of recovery efforts in the Lower Clark Fork jeopardized by an ill-conceived mine plan.”