The Rock Creek Mine would put the squeeze on grizzly bears, put an unsightly tailings pile next to the Clark Fork River and put the waters of the river and Lake Pend Oreille at risk.
But a mine on the edge of the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness also would provide about 350 jobs, bring tax dollars to Sanders County and feed the nation’s appetite for copper and silver.
Government officials are leaning toward approving the mine under a revised plan, outlined in a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement re leased last week by the U.S. Forest Service and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
The public has 60 days to comment on the document, which outlines the agencies’ preferred alternative - one that’s partially the brainchild of the mining company, ASARCO Inc.
“It’s more of the same, experimental, unproven applications for the mine,” said Diane Williams, Idaho coordinator for the Rock Creek Alliance, which opposes the mine. The Alliance includes Trout Unlimited, Spokane Mountaineers, Bonner County Association of Realtors and the Lake Pend Oreille Club.
But what Williams calls experimental, ASARCO calls cutting-edge technology born from the need for greater environmental protection.
“It’s state of the art,” said Dave Young, project manager for ASARCO.
The mine would burrow underneath the wilderness area near Chicago Peak to access an ore body that’s 1,000 feet below the surface. ASARCO estimates it can process 10,000 tons of ore a day for 30 years.
Mine workers would make an average yearly wage of about $28,000, not including benefits, Young said. The county would get $1.5 million a year in property taxes.
During that time, and for years following the mine’s closure, ASARCO would have to deal with millions of tons of waste and wastewater containing nitrates from explosives and hazardous metals.
The issues now are largely the same as two years ago, when the agencies released the draft Environmental Impact Statement on the mine. Thousands of comments and new information prompted the Forest Service and state to come up with a new plan, which is now the agencies’ preferred alternative.
Here’s how the new plan differs from the old:
The tailings impoundment would contain only 20 percent water, turning the tailings into a paste that ASARCO and agency officials claim will be more stable than conventional tailings. The excess water would be recycled back to the mill site or routed through the water treatment plant. Some seepage would still enter the ground.
Instead of using cow manure, hay and sawdust to biologically treat the water for nitrates, ASARCO now proposes using methanol, which adds precision to the treatment process.
The new back-up treatment method is called reverse osmosis, used in some drinking water systems and to create ultra-pure water for electronics manufacturing.
Ore concentrate pipelines would be double-walled with leak detection equipment to prevent spills into Rock Creek.
Mine workers would be bused from a support facility near the highway to reduce the number of animals killed by vehicles along Forest Road 150.
Electric haul trucks would be used underground to reduce the need to release exhaust through a hole cut into a cliff on St. Paul Peak.
ASARCO would be required to correct some existing erosion problems along Rock Creek to make up for the run-off that will be caused by mine development.
While both sides agree that the new alternative improves upon previous plans, several concerns nag away at environmental watchdogs.
For instance, critics say the paste technology hasn’t been tested for this kind of use.
“We acknowledge fully that this is the first time it’s been applied on the surface at this scale,” Young said. But, he added, “there’s nothing magic about it. All it is is further dewatered tailings.”
All that water would be going to an already overloaded treatment plant, Williams said. The water treatment system is another new method that has never been used on this scale. One Montana mine has a pilot project that treats 100 gallons of wastewater a minute, but Rock Creek Mine could discharge more than 2,000 gallons a minute - more than 3 million gallons a day - into the Clark Fork River.
Young said the solution to that is simply to add more treatment “cells,” or ponds.
“If there’s more water than we expected, we can still treat it,” he said. “It’s just going to cost us more.”
Rock Creek watchdogs also aren’t convinced that the tailings impoundment would be stable. It would sit about 2,000 feet from the Clark Fork River and tower 325 feet high.
Paul Kaiser, project coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service, said that if a failure were to occur with the paste impoundment, it would slowly ooze toward the river and stop.
The Rock Creek Alliance would prefer the tailings be backfilled into mine tunnels to prevent a cave-in that could drain the wilderness lakes above. Kaiser calls the risk extremely remote, but the agencies have asked ASARCO for more rock mechanics studies and a plan to control cave-ins.
The mine’s effect on wildlife continues to be a concern as well.
The Cabinet and Yaak region has at least 16 grizzly bears and at least five in the wilderness area, USFS biologist Wayne Johnson said.
The mine would affect 7,000 acres of bear habitat and encounters with humans could increase. Bears, mountain goats and hikers could be disturbed by the blasting, lights and noise generated by the mining operation.
Compounding the problem is the possible start-up of the Noranda Mine on the east side of the Cabinet Mountains. The mine has been approved, but it has been delayed by a lawsuit now working its way through the 9th Circuit Court.
Other mining claims in the Cabinets soon could see more activity, Johnson said. “We’re having people coming in and asking for access, wanting roads put in” to the claims, he said.
Bull trout could suffer losses either from spills or from dirt washing into the stream. Montana, like Idaho, is trying to restore bull trout populations to keep it off the endangered species list.
Rock Creek is considered a “core” bull trout stream along the Clark Fork.
The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks is concerned that any additional erosion into the stream could harm one of the few strong populations of bull trout left in the area.
The creek already has some erosion problems that ASARCO would have to try to correct under the new alternative.
“The concern is … are we sufficiently solving the problem,” said Pat Saffel, a Montana fisheries biologist with the wildlife agency. “Any higher increase (of sediment) would have significant impacts.”
Williams and other opponents repeatedly bring up ASARCO’s track record as a reason not to trust the company. ASARCO has 21 sites on the national Superfund list.
“ASARCO’s a very old company,” Young explained. “When we were operating those facilities, they were operated in the socially and governmentally acceptable manner at that time.”
ASARCO has a vested interest in keeping its new sites off the Superfund list, he said. “Our stockholders say, ‘Look, we don’t want future liabilities.”’
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Proposed Rock Creek Mine
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: BEAR CONCERNS The Cabinet and Yaak region has at least 16 grizzly bears and at least five in the wilderness area, USFS biologist Wayne Johnson said. The mine would affect 7,000 acres of bear habitat and encounters with humans could increase.