A Montana court ruling has added a legal roadblock to plans by a Spokane company to develop a large silver and copper mine in northwest Montana, including a portion that bores under the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness.
Following a court process that began in 2007, a judge in Lincoln County, Mont., ruled that Mines Management Inc. and its Libby-based subsidiary, Montanore Minerals, cannot use sections of its existing mine entrance for its planned Montanore Project.
The single-entrance tunnel, called an adit, starts on the east side of the wilderness and burrows downward roughly 14,000 feet west. About half of the adit is under the wilderness, according to Mines Management statements.
But Lewiston resident Walter Lindsey has a valid claim on land near the adit’s entrance, and Mines Management cannot trespass on that claim, the court ruled.
The court also said other claims by a second claim-holder, Arnold Bakie of Athol, are “senior” to some claims filed by Mines Management on land alongside the adit.
“What that means is that Mines Management can’t do anything there without the permission of Arnold Bakie,” said Frank Wall, a North Idaho mining engineer who has worked for a number of groups opposing the Montanore mine.
Mines Management has tried to move forward with the project since 2002, when it took over the adit from Canadian mining company Noranda Minerals Corp. The adit is still roughly 3,000 feet away from reaching a large ore body under the Cabinet Mountains.
Noranda abandoned the plan in 2002 when metal prices plummeted.
Since then, copper and silver prices have soared.
Mines Management has said in releases the Montanore ore body is estimated at 230 million ounces of silver and nearly 2 billion pounds of copper, making it potentially one of the largest precious metals mines in North America.
For more than a decade the Montanore project has been challenged both by smaller mining interests and by regional environmentalists.
Coeur d’Alene attorney Rollin Watson, who represented Lindsey and Libby Creek Ventures, a group of claimants also opposing Mines Management, said the court ruling is a major blow to the project.
“The judge’s ruling against them (Mines Management) essentially enjoins them from going forward,” Watson said.
Glenn Dobbs, CEO and chairman of Mines Management, said his attorneys this week filed an appeal to the Montana Supreme Court. They’ll argue the judge incorrectly interpreted the locations of Lindsey’s claims, and that Mines Management has valid claims covering the entire length of the adit.
“The reality is that the court failed to see that Lindsey’s claims do not overlay ours,” Dobbs said.
Dobbs said he intends to move forward with plans for the Montanore project, including expecting a final environmental impact statement to be issued this year by the U.S. Forest Service.
Company documents have stated “we do not believe that any future mining or associated surface activity would have a material impact on the wilderness area.”
But Lynne Haley, a member of Alternative One, a Libby-based environmental group, said opponents believe the mine would create long-term harm to water resources, wildlife and community health.
A second proposed Cabinet Wilderness silver and copper mine, involving Revett Minerals based in Spokane Valley, is also awaiting release of a Forest Service supplemental environmental impact statement.
Revett plans to develop the Rock Creek Mine, which would start on the west edge of the wilderness and head eastward underneath it.