Court Blocks Mine in Montana’s Cabinet Mountains Wilderness

MISSOULA, Montana, March 29, 2010 (ENS) – Environmental groups today declared victory for bull trout, grizzly bears and the people of northwest Montana, when a federal judge rejected the U.S. Forest Service’s approval of a proposed silver and copper mine on the edge of the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness Area within the Kootenai National Forest.

Judge Donald Molloy ruled that the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Forest Service Organic Act in approving the Rock Creek Mine planned by Revett Minerals Inc.

Seeking silver and copper, Revett Minerals plans to bore under the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness through recreational areas and key habitat for bull trout, and grizzly bears.

“The federal permit blocked today was issued by the Bush administration and we hope the Obama administration will have a different view about undermining a federal wilderness area,” said Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso, who sucessfully challenged the mine on behalf of a dozen environmental groups.

“This mine would smother important bull trout spawning grounds under tons of sediment and disrupt thousands of acres of habitat for the region’s tiny grizzly bear population, all while threatening to drain the water out of lakes in the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness,” Preso said.

But officials of the publicly traded company based in Spokane Valley say they are not giving up yet.

“We always knew this was going to be a long and involved process,” John Shanahan, president of Revett Minerals, told the “Missoulian” newspaper. “It’s definitely a setback, but for now, we remain optimistic.”

The ruling is the third time that lawsuits by members of the public have succeeded in invalidating federal agency approvals for the Rock Creek Mine project.

Pond in Cabinet Mountains Wilderness above the proposed Rock Creek mine (Photo by Doug Day courtesy No Dirty Gold)

“This third strike against this mine should end the game,” said Jim Costello of the Rock Creek Alliance, one of the groups involved in the lawsuits. “We’ve said all along that this mine simply cannot be built without contaminating the region’s waters and pushing the Cabinet’s fragile bull trout and grizzly bear population in Rock Creek to extinction.”

In his ruling, Judge Molloy rejected environmentalists’ claims based on the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act, while at the same time vacating the Forest Service’s approval of the Rock Creek Mine.

Because no written opinion accompanied the order, Preso said, “it’s not entirely clear on what grounds Judge Molloy made his decision.”

Judge Molloy ordered that the Forest Service’s 2003 record of decision and 2001 final environmental impact statement for the mine are set aside and remanded to the Forest Service for further action.

The proposed mining operation would have removed 10,000 tons per day of copper and silver ore from under the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness seven days a week for 35 years, Preso said. The resulting loss of more than 7,000 acres of habitat would be devastating to the few grizzly bears that survive in the Cabinet Mountains.

The mining operation would have dumped up to three million gallons of wastewater a day into the Clark Fork River.

The Rock Creek Mine faced opposition from a coalition of local, regional and national conservation groups, along with local business representatives, public officials and ordinary citizens.

The groups that challenged the mine are Rock Creek Alliance, Cabinet Resource Group, Clark Fork Coalition, Earthworks, Sierra Club, Trout Unlimited, Idaho Council of Trout Unlimited, Pacific Rivers Council, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Natural Resources Defense Council, Montana Wilderness Association, and Great Old Broads for Wilderness.

The Rock Creek ore body was discovered by Bear Creek Mining, owned by Kennecott, in the early 1960s. ASARCO explored the property from 1974 through 1983, expanding on the work previously done by Kennecott.

The permitting process began in 1987 with the submission of a plan of operations to the U.S. Forest Service, the primary land manager for the project. Mineral patents for Rock Creek were issued in 1989 which initiated the National Environmental Policy Act process for environmental review.

In 2003, the U.S. Forest Service issued a Record of Decision authorizing the mine, “If or when all mitigation measures are met…” Bonding was to fully cover the cost of water treatment and reclamation of any and all disturbances. The total bond for the project then was estimated to be about $77 million plus an additional $4.2 million for grizzly bear protection measures.

It is this Record of Decision that Judge Molloy today set aside.

The company issued an ad in 2007 with the message that grizzly bears would be protected even if the mine goes ahead. The ad states that 2,450 acres of high-quality grizzly habitat would be protected from future development; Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks would be able to hire two grizzly bear specialists for 30-plus years, and an additional law enforcement officer for the area at no cost to taxpayers or sportsmen.

But the conservation groups were not persuaded. Costello said, “It’s time for the government to stop this merry-go-round and start working to protect our region’s waters, trout and bears.”

Click here to view the Rock Creek Mine Environmental Impact Statement, Biological Opinion, and Record of Decision.

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