Mining Threats in the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness
The Cabinet Mountains Wilderness is an ecological powerhouse. It provides refuge for native fish and wildlife, and its streams flow with some of the purest waters in the lower 48.
It also contains one of the largest copper/silver deposits in the world, and two companies are now turning on the afterburners to secure permits to mine. The Rock Creek Mine would tunnel for miles below the wilderness from the west; Montanore Mine from the east. Both would put trout-filled waters at risk…drying them up and damaging them…possibly forever. We are our partners are working to ensure that won’t happen. Read on to learn more.
- July 2021: Montana’s New Governor Lets “Bad Actor” Off Scot Free
- May 2021: Court Rules Montana has Jurisdiction to Enforce “Bad Actor” Law
- November 2020: Montana Supreme Court Blocks Montanore Mine Pollution Permit
- April 2019: Montana District Court rules Rock Creek water use permit violates water protection laws (See “Rock Creek Mine” below)
- March 2018: Montana enforces Bad Actor Law (See “Bad Actor Law,” below)
- May 2017: Federal judge overturns government agency approval for Montanore Mine (See “Montanore Mine” below)
Rock Creek Mine:
APRIL 2019 UPDATE: Fantastic news! A Montana District Court judge reversed the decision of Montana’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) to grant a water use permit for the Rock Creek Mine. The permit would have allowed the mine operator, Hecla Mining Company and its subsidiary, RC Resources, to carry out major groundwater pumping that the company’s own analysis shows would permanently dewater pristine streams in the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness. Permanently reducing flows down to zero in several headwater reaches that are critical bull trout strongholds. We argued that this severe dewatering violates the state’s non-degradation provisions that protect wilderness streams, and we reasoned that the water, therefore, was not legally available. The court, it turns out, agreed! CFC and our partners – Earthworks, Rock Creek Alliance, and MEIC – are thrilled with this ruling. Special thanks to Earthjustice, who filed the lawsuit on our behalf. Read Press Release here.
Background: The Rock Creek Mine would tunnel for miles underneath wilderness peaks, alpine lakes, and trout-filled streams to access one of the largest copper/silver deposits in the world. Unlike Montanore, which straddles two river systems, this mine’s facilities, waste, and all of its impacts would be concentrated in one—the Clark Fork watershed. The mine’s wastewater discharge will pour into the Lower Clark Fork River just 30 miles upriver from Idaho’s Lake Pend Oreille.
The Rock Creek Mine—which has been in the works and seen Court challenges for nearly 30 years—is moving quickly toward a permitting decision. (Regulators started approving initial permits for Rock Creek back in 2003, but the Courts have consistently found the project to be in violation of environmental laws, sending mining companies back to the drawing board.) On February 19, 2016, the U.S. Forest Service released a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS).
Key Points: (more details and additional information here)
- It’s not just one mine: The impacts of the Rock Creek Mine must be considered in context with the extensive impacts of the proposed Montanore Mine.
- It risks polluting Clark Fork and wilderness streams: The mine would put ~100 million of tons of mine waste in an unlined, risky impoundment next to the Clark Fork River. The geochemistry of the ore and waste rock show risks of acid mine drainage that have not been adequately considered in the SDEIS.
- It’s a disaster for bull trout: The mine will reduce stream flows in some of the most important bull trout recovery streams in the region. Together with Montanore, this delivers a one-two punch to a federally-protected threatened species, dewatering ~30 miles on seven streams in all.
- It’s illegal: The Cabinet’s wilderness streams are protected by the State of Montana as “Outstanding Resource Waters.” Depleting them violates water protection laws.
Resources and links:
- Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement
- Hecla Mining: https://www.hecla-mining.com
- Kootenai National Forest Rock Creek Project website
The proposed Montanore Mine in the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness would tunnel beneath pristine forests and streams to access a large silver and copper deposit. One impact of this massive operation will be partial or complete de-watering of vital bull trout habitat on three wilderness streams. The Kootenai National Forest recently approved the full mine – even though its impacts on mountain streams violates Montana’s water laws.
On April 1, 2016 CFC and a coalition of conservation groups filed suit to protect wilderness rivers and streams and threatened bull trout from the dewatering effects of the proposed Montanore Mine.
On May 30, 2017 a federal judge overturned government agency approvals for the proposed Montanore Mine in the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, which would dewater pristine trout streams and industrialize some of the last remaining grizzly bear habitat of northwest Montana. While the mine is located in the Kootenai watershed, dewatering of wilderness streams and bull trout habitat would occur across the divide in creeks that drain to the Clark Fork.
Resources and links:
- Court victory joint press release, 5/31/17 (CFC, Earthworks, Save Our Cabinets, Earthjustice, Defenders of Wildlife, Western Mining Action Project)
- Court decision and order, 5/30/17
Bad Actor Law:
Pegasus Gold, after declaring bankruptcy, left Montanans to clean up huge mining messes that have cost us tens of millions to treat, continue to spoil our waters today, and will require expensive treatment forever. Now, a former Pegasus executive, Phillips Baker, wants to mine in Montana again, this time as CEO of Hecla Mining (the mining company behind the proposed Cabinet Mountain mines).
Luckily, Montana’s got a law for that.
It’s called the “Bad Actor” law, and it requires polluters to clean up past contamination and pay back the state (plus interest and penalties) before they can profit from Montana’s riches again. This common sense, bipartisan law was created under Republican Governor Judy Martz and had broad support from the mining industry…including, ironically, Pegasus Gold. At the time the law was passed, Pegasus officials said they were “foursquare behind the notion of good development, and had no tolerance for people who abused the reclamation laws of Montana.” (Read the legislative history)
In March 2018, Montana’s DEQ took action to enforce this common sense law, informing Hecla that, under Baker’s leadership, it cannot mine here until it complies with the statute. Hecla and its subsidiaries sued, and DEQ is prepared to defend the state’s environmental laws (CFC and our partners have intervened in the case). DEQ also filed a counterclaim reiterating to Hecla that it cannot mine in Montana until it either pays back the state, or parts ways with Mr. Baker.
Resources and links:
- Read the Bad Actor Press Release and Montana DEQ’s letters to Hecla and Phillips Baker.
- Montanan’s are speaking out in support of DEQ upholding the Bad Actor law:
- 4/11/18 – Cesar Hernandez
- 4/25/18 – Juanita Vero
- 6/29/18 – Bozeman Daily Chronicle Editorial Board
- 7/13/18 – Board member Tim Flynn in an Earth Justice article
- 8/8/18 – Jim Nash
- 8/11/18 – DEQ Director Tom Livers
- 9/15/18 – The Fort Belknap Community
- 9/25/18 – Tracy “Ching” King
- 9/28/18 – Martha D. Humphreys
- KBMF explains the Bad Actor Law.
- Court rejects Rock Creek Mine water use permit – Press Release(4/15/19) and court decision (4/9/19)
- Bad Actor Press Release (3/20/18)
- Endangered Species Act order, 5/30/17
- Montanore Talking Points
- Joint press release, 2/12/16 (CFC, Earthworks, Save Our Cabinets, Earthjustice, Defenders of Wildlife)
- Missoulian news article and Globe Newswire article 2/12/16
- Record of Decision (2/12/16) and Final EIS (12/18/15) from Kootenai National Forest
- Maps and additional information from Save our Cabinets
For more information about Montanore and Rock Creek mines, contact John DeArment, firstname.lastname@example.org, at the Clark Fork Coalition.