BOISE – Developers of the proposed Rock Creek Mine in Montana want to take members of an Idaho legislative committee looking into the issue on a tour of the area.
“There is a great deal of emotion surrounding the Rock Creek project and a great deal of innuendo and misinformation,” lobbyist Russ Westerberg, representing Revett Silver Co. of Spokane Valley, told the Joint Legislative Environmental Common Sense Committee on Tuesday. “When you examine the science separate from the emotion, I think great value could come from that.”
The controversial copper and silver mine, proposed upstream from Lake Pend Oreille on a tributary of the Clark Fork River, is tied up in court for now, though Revett had previously hoped to begin initial development work this spring. A U.S. District Court judge in Missoula ruled a month ago that federal permits granted for the mine didn’t adequately protect grizzly bears and bull trout in the area.
A Forest Service decision to permit the mine, which would involve tunneling under a northwest Montana wilderness, also is being challenged in court.
“There seems to be a fair amount of pending litigation,” Mark Masarik of the Idaho office of the Environmental Protection Agency told the legislative committee.
The joint committee includes lawmakers, industry people, federal and state agency and local government representatives and more. In place for a decade, the panel is chaired by Sen. Hal Bunderson, R-Meridian, and Rep. Jack Barraclough, R-Idaho Falls.
Barraclough recently described its purpose as bringing together “House and Senate people, environmentalists, regulators, business, industry, to look at environmental regulations and see what’s the least onerous regulation you could have and still protect the environment.”
The large committee, which also includes Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, has worked on such issues as exploring how Idaho could take over a national pollution program that the EPA now administers in Idaho, and how to deal with the millions of waste tires in the state.
Anderson and Post Falls Mayor Clay Larkin asked the panel in February to add Rock Creek to its agenda. Larkin then made a presentation to the group in late February, and urged it to pay attention to how the Montana mine could impact the Clark Fork River, Lake Pend Oreille, the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer and the Spokane River.
Jon Sandoval of the state Department of Environmental Quality said Tuesday, “Since then a lot of things have changed,” with the project now stopped in court and federal agencies revising their biological opinions on the mine’s impacts.
“This is a pretty significant issue with a lot of Idaho citizens up there in those drainages and even across the line into Spokane,” Bunderson said. “Mayor Larkin asked that we put this on our agenda and monitor it, so that’s what we’re doing.”
Anderson said he’s already gone on a Revett tour of the nearby Troy mine twice. That’s an active mine that uses similar methods.
“It convinced me that it is state of the art, I will say that, from what I had seen,” Anderson said. “But it also brought up some issues.”
Anderson said he’s worried about nitrate fuel used in explosives at the proposed mine getting into streams and spurring milfoil growth and other nutrient problems. “I don’t want to fertilize it,” he said. “They could use gel-cap explosives rather than nitrate, but it’s more expensive.”
However, Anderson said he was glad the committee was looking into the issue and might visit the area. “This is developing a dialogue. This is a great start,” he said.
He noted that a year ago, when North Idaho lawmakers proposed a legislative resolution expressing “grave concerns” about the Montana mine, the House Resources Committee refused even to introduce the measure – which meant it got no public hearing. Committee members said they were hesitant to tell another state what to do.
Anderson also noted that the governor’s office has allocated funding for a baseline study of the Clark Fork River, largely at the urging of Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, who worked this year for funding for a series of North Idaho water projects.
“We’re starting to talk about what are the impacts, what can we do together to make sure that we mitigate the potential harm if there is a permit,” Anderson said. “So there’s some successes.”
Westerberg said the company still hopes to go forward with the mine, and hopes to convince lawmakers it won’t hurt Idaho water. “I think they’ll appreciate the Clark Fork and the waters thereof are not in any danger from the project,” he said. “The opponents are using the courts, obviously, to impede progress. That’ll work itself out.”