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 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.
Bad Actor Law
Montana’s Metal Mine Reclamation Act (MMRA) contains a provision that makes it clear that individuals or companies who failed to conduct required mine reclamation in the past are barred from undertaking new mining activities in Montana unless they pay back the taxpayers the full amount needed for reclamation with penalties and interest.
The “bad actor” provisions of the MMRA were strengthened in response to the mining disasters and financial burden left behind by the bankruptcy of Pegasus Gold in 1998. After folding, Pegasus abandoned three mining disasters in Montana: the Zortman-Landusky Mine near Malta, the Basin Creek Mine near Boulder, and the Beal Mountain Mine near Butte. All of them used the dangerous and environmentally destructive cyanide-heap leach mining process. Due to Pegasus Gold’s failure to adequately clean up these mines, the State of Montana has been left with large-scale, ongoing remediation and water treatment projects costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. As of January 2017, public agencies had spent more than $74 million for water treatment at Zortman-Landusky alone, where acid mine drainage from Pegasus Gold’s operations has despoiled the land, water, and sacred sites of the Fort Belknap Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Tribes, whose reservation borders the mine site.
Phillips Baker, the CEO of Hecla (the mining company behind the proposed Cabinet Mountain mines), was a former executive at Pegasus Gold. Since October, a coalition of environmental groups has been pressing Montana DEQ to enforce the bad actor law against Hecla. On March 20th, Montana DEQ announced that Hecla and Baker are in violation of the bad actor law and were given 30 days to declare their intention to resolve the matter by repaying the state’s cleanup expenses. Alternatively, the company would have to prove Baker and any entity under his direction will not conduct mining or exploration activities in the state. We’re keeping tabs on how this develops, but as of today this is a victory for clean water in Montana.
Rock Creek Mine
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.
Here are resources and links:
- Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement
- Hecla Mining: http://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.
Here are 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
- 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, email@example.com, at the Clark Fork Coalition.
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