Both mine developers and opponents are claiming victory after the U.S. Forest Service finished reviewing objections to the Rock Creek mine project in northwest Montana.
Region 1 Deputy Forester David Schmid allowed Hecla Mining Co. to go forward with the first phase of its proposed underground silver and copper mine near Troy, but withheld a decision on the second phase until requirements of the first half are met.
“My specific concern with signing a record of decision approving the entire project is the inherent level of uncertainty in the analysis, based on the current availability of information,” Schmid wrote Wednesday. “Underground mine development occurs in rock formations that are generally hundreds to thousands of feet below the surface, hidden from view, and inaccessible other than through mine development or drill holes.”
Schmid’s 23-page response to Kootenai National Forest Supervisor Chris Savage gave the agency’s answers to objections about how the mine might affect water sources in the adjacent Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, threatened populations of grizzly bears and bull trout, ground subsidence and tailings stability, and wilderness character of the region.
Schmid wrote that most of the objections were addressed in the environmental review of the mine, but added some new instructions for several points.
Hecla Vice President for External Affairs Luke Russell said Schmid’s response was in line with the company’s long-range plan for the project.
“This is a phased project, and this is the first step in that project,” Russell said Thursday. “We think it’s all part of the process and we’re moving forward.”
Mine opponents applauded the Forest Service’s modification of what had been a full approval of Hecla’s mine plan.
“While we are pleased that the Forest Service will not permit the full mine, allowing the first phase of the mine to proceed would needlessly jeopardize wilderness waters and threatened bull trout and grizzly bears for the development of a mine that the agency recognizes cannot meet federal and state laws,” Rock Creek Alliance executive director Mary Costello wrote in an email statement.
“All the evidence to date shows that these mines cannot be excavated under the wilderness without lasting harm to the overlying streams and the fish and wildlife that find refuge there,” added Bonnie Gestring, northwest program director for Earthworks. “That’s something the agency simply can’t ignore.”
A coalition of opponents including Rock Creek Alliance, Earthworks, Clark Fork Coalition, Montana Environmental Information Center and Save Our Cabinets also challenged Hecla’s permits with the state Department of Environmental Quality, alleging the company employs an executive who bears responsibility for unfinished mine cleanup work from the Zortman-Landusky projects near Malta.
The state Metal Mine Reclamation Act of 2001's “bad actor” provision prohibits officials connected to uncompleted reclamation work from starting new projects.
Russell previously has denied Hecla had any liability under that law and was moving forward with its state permits as well.
Hecla’s subsidiaries own the exploration license for the Rock Creek mine near Noxon and the operating permit for the Montanore mine by Libby. The projects intend to produce copper and silver with hard-rock tunnel mine operations.