Rock Creek Mine gets partial approval

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(Photo courtesy WOODS WHEATCROFT) The pristine wilderness terrain around the site of the proposed Rock Creek Mine drains directly into the watershed that connects the Clark Fork River with Lake Pend Oreille.

A long-gestating mining plan for the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness has been drawn out further.

Forest Service announced Oct. 31 that it would approve the initial, exploratory phase of RC Resources’s proposed silver- and copper-mining operation in the wilderness, part of Kootenai National Forest.

The Forest Service had proposed approving both Phase I and Phase II of the Rock Creek Mine at the same time. But after reviewing objections, Deputy Regional Forester David Schmid voiced concern with “the degree of uncertainty...inherent in evaluating the specific environmental impacts related to groundwater prior to actual mine development.”

He decided not to approve the second phase “until the information generated during Phase I can be evaluated and a determination whether additional analysis is required is made.”

Environmental groups are claiming the decision as a victory, and will likely subject RC Resources and its parent company, Coeur d’Alene-based Hecla Mining Company, to continued scrutiny as they develop the site.

The silver and copper seams beneath the Cabinet Mountains have drawn controversy for decades. ASARCO first proposed mining them in 1987. Over the years, the mineral rights passed through multiple owners, approval processes and lawsuits.

By June 2017, the Forest Service was poised to allow RC Resources to commence a 38-year, 445-acre operation to be developed in two phases. The first would involve drilling exploratory mine shafts, called “adits.” During the second, the company would build and operate the mine, mill and necessary support facilities.

That prospect, outlined in a June 21 draft record of decision, concerned Bonnie Gestring, northwest program director at the environmental group Earthworks.

“Construction of this mine,” she told the Daily Inter Lake, “would have lasting harm to rivers and streams that overlie the mines, so we certainly want to see that prevented.”

Most of the objections, submitted during a July-August window, involve water quality. Conservationists fear that the mine’s operations could foul and draw down the groundwater and streams that supports the forest’s wildlife.

Schmid, deciding that these risks could not be assessed with the information available, declined to approve full operations.

“Proceeding with Phase I...will generate additional hydrologic and geologic data relevant to making an informed decision regarding Phase II,” he wrote in a response to objections.

This decision limits Hecla to a “two to three year period to obtain additional environmental and geological information,” explained Luke Russell, the company’s vice president for external affairs.

Phase I, he continued, will involve digging a 6,000-foot-long tunnel to reach the mineralized zone, plus further exploration drilling to gather more information.

“Any water encountered in this tunnel will be collected and then treated to meet State of Montana groundwater quality standards,” he told the Inter Lake.

But other obstacles could still await the firm.

Hecla Chief Executive Phillips Baker once served as chief financial officer of Pegasus Gold, Inc., whose 1998 bankruptcy left Montana responsible for millions of dollars in cleanup costs. The mine’s opponents argue that state law bars him from gaining permits for new mining projects. Russell disputes that claim.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a biological opinion, required by the Endangered Species Act, in 2006. But Gestring says it failed to account for the project’s hydrological impacts. The service confirmed that a new one is underway.

For a mining project that has involved far more litigating and objecting than digging, these factors could bring more of the same.

“There’s additional work that needs to be done,” Gestring said.

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