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Judge blocks Rock Creek Mine

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A federal judge on Monday blocked a proposal to dig a major new mine beneath a remote Montana wilderness area that boasts grizzly bears, rare trout — and huge reserves of silver and copper.

Mining companies have eyed the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness south of Libby for more than three decades. Development has been stalled by lawsuits from environmentalists, but Revett Minerals had planned to finally start work in the Cabinets this spring.

Monday’s ruling from U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy said the U.S. Forest Service must reconsider its 2003 approval of the company’s proposal to mine up to 10,000 tons of ore a day.

Molloy also ruled against the mine in 2005, when he struck down a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion of the project.

Revett CEO John Shanahan said the ruling will delay work scheduled to start this spring, most likely for months.

But Shanahan said the Spokane company remains committed to the mine. Rock Creek contains an estimated 229 million ounces of silver and 2 billion tons of copper, and could employ up to 300 people.

“We’re in this for the long haul,” Shanahan said.

Exploratory drilling in the area began in 1979 under the ownership of Asarco. Revett bought the project in 1999.

The company planned to build the mouth of its mine outside the wilderness, then dig three mile-long tunnels to access the ore.

The company has said Rock Creek could produce 6 million ounces of silver and 52 million pounds of copper annually over at least a 20-year mine life.

Several miles north of Rock Creek, Revett operates the Troy silver mine. In 2009, its 180 workers produced 1.2 million ounces of silver and 9.7 million pounds of copper. That mine is expected to remain open at least 6 more years.

Molloy did not immediately provide the grounds for his ruling. Plaintiffs in the case had argued the Forest Service underestimated the potential environmental damage a mine would cause.

“It may be something relatively minor; it may be something relatively major,” Shanahan said. “We remain hopeful it’s something relatively minor.”

Forest Service officials could not be immediately reached for comment.

The case combines two lawsuits, a 2005 complaint against the Forest Service and a 2008 complaint against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

They were filed by the Rock Creek Alliance, Sierra Club, Great Old Broads for Wilderness and several other groups, although not all groups were named in both lawsuits.

Tim Preso, an Earthjustice attorney who represented the plaintiffs, said he was hopeful the Obama administration would be more critical of the mine than the Bush administration, which supported the project.

Rock Creek drains into the Clark Fork River, which is considered critical habitat for threatened bull trout. Preso said that of 35 grizzly bears living in the Cabinet Mountains, at least two live near Rock Creek.

“There’s a lot at stake in terms of wildlife and wilderness,” Preso said. “We hope (the Obama administration) will take a different view of the question of whether it’s appropriate to authorize a massive industrial mining complex in sensitive wildlife habitat adjacent to a federal wilderness area.”