HELENA — The U.S. Forest Service has released a draft environmental impact statement for a proposal to mine copper and silver beneath northwestern Montana’s Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, a project that would occupy a slice of prime grizzly bear country and has critics forming a new group.
The draft presents alternatives for developing the Montanore mine about 18 miles south of Libby, and identifies the Forest Service’s preference among those options.
Developer Mines Management Inc. is “encouraged” by the impact statement released this week, said Eric Klepfer, who works on permit applications for the Spokane company.
A member of the Rock Creek Alliance, which sees environmental hazard in both Montanore and another project proposed nearby, the Rock Creek mine, said the Montanore critics are separating into a new group called Save Our Cabinets to wage their opposition more effectively.
The Forest Service’s preferred alternative would put the Montanore mill, for processing ore, about two miles from where Mines Management proposed building it and would change the point of access to the ore, measures the agency finds would reduce impact on grizzly bears. The Forest Service also altered plans for a mine waste impoundment.
“They took the footprint and instead of having it in two separate drainages they’ve consolidated it in one drainage,” Klepfer said. “We like the preferred alternative.”
Opponents of the project will fight development doing “whatever is necessary” through regulatory channels and the courts, Tom Costello said Friday from Trout Creek, in the shadow of the Cabinet Mountains.
“It’s a wilderness and aquatic issue for us,” said Costello, who is active in the Rock Creek Alliance and expects opposition to Montanore to strengthen as the emerging Save Our Cabinets gains footing. The potential for mining to harm water quality is a leading concern, Costello said.
The environmental issues are relatively minor and can be addressed, said Mines Management CEO Glenn Dobbs, adding the company wants to fund transplantation of grizzly bears to strengthen the population in the Cabinets.
The Forest Service is taking public comment on the draft environmental impact statement through May 28 and then will prepare a final version, which will be followed by the Kootenai National Forest supervisor’s decision on the mining project. The final impact statement could be a year away, said Bobbie Lacklen, project coordinator at the Kootenai National Forest headquarters in Libby.
Mines Management has been striving to establish Montanore since 2005. Noranda Minerals Corp., with Mines Management as a minority partner, proposed the project in the 1990s and then withdrew amid low prices for metals.
The ore body is beneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, but operations above ground would be outside the wilderness boundary. Power for the mine would come from a transmission line proposed for construction.
The Montanore Project would be on the east side of the Cabinet Mountains and the Rock Creek Mine on the west side. Only about 1.5 miles separate their mineral deposits, Dobbs said. Like Montanore, the Rock Creek copper and silver mine would tunnel beneath the wilderness.
In December, the Montana Supreme Court voided a state water discharge permit for the Rock Creek Mine, ruling the state Department of Environmental Quality insufficiently analyzed how wastewater from the mine would affect Rock Creek and the Clark Fork River.
”We have over the years had discussions with the owners of Rock Creek about combining the two projects, but to no avail,” Dobbs said. “We still hold out that hope.”
Rock Creek is a project of Revett Minerals Inc., based in Spokane.
The company is awaiting resolution of legal issues surrounding the mine and anticipates eventual development, Vice President Carson Rife said Friday.
Reacting to Dobbs’ remarks about merging the projects, Rife said, “There certainly isn’t anything in place at the moment that would justify those comments, from our company’s position.”
Montanore remains covered by a state operating permit issued years ago. The state environmental agency will draw on the environmental impact statement in determining whether that permit should be revised. The agency, co-leader with the Forest Service in developing the draft, has chosen a preferred alternative for the transmission line that would carry power for the Montanore mine.