PUBLIC LANDS -- While the U.S. Forest Service has given the go ahead for mining that would drill under the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality says today that more testing and assurances are required to prevent impacts to the pristine lakes and streams.
Montana environmental regulators gave conditional approval to a long-stalled silver and copper mine proposed beneath a federal wilderness area, saying the developer must show the $500 million project won’t drain water from overlying creeks before it can proceed.
Department of Environmental Quality Director Tom Livers approved an air quality permit and transmission line that would connect to the Montanore mine. The Kootenai National Forest also gave approval to the $500 million project.
But additional approvals are needed, and Livers told The Associated Press that concerns remain over the potential for the mine to drain groundwater feeding into waterways in the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness.
Those possible effects could linger for centuries, AP reports. As a result, developer Mines Management, Inc. won’t be able to move forward with construction and mining until it demonstrates the mine won’t drain nearby creeks and the East Fork of the Bull River, Livers told AP.
"We're really surprised that the Forest Service has approved the whole thing given that the state record of decision acknowledges that developing the full mine will violate state water quality laws enacted to protect wilderness waters as outstanding resources," Bonnie Gestring of Earthworks told The Spokesman-Review.
She said a coalition of environmental groups likely will be challenging the Forest Service approval based on the state's analysis.
"The Forest Service shouldn't be approving the mine based on future evidence they hope will support their decision," Gestring said. "This mine has been studied for years and all the evidence to date indicates that trying to excavate a mine under the wilderness area will cause irreparable harm to some wilderness rivers and lakes."
Here are more details on today's decisions from the AP:
“There are existing faults in the bedrock. There’s a danger that if the mine’s too close, it becomes a pathway” to drain water that would otherwise feed the creeks, Liver said. “The company doesn’t think it’s going to happen, but based on the information we’ve got from them thus far, that’s what’s projected.”
Sponsor Mines Management Inc. of Spokane previously said that anything less than full approval could make it difficult to attract investors.
Just last month, the mine appeared to have cleared one of its most significant hurdles when the DEQ and U.S. Forest Service finalized a long-awaited environmental review of the project.
U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Ryan Zinke, both Republicans, last month urged Gov. Steve Bullock to grant full approval. They warned that a “staged” approval would delay much-needed job creation and tax revenue for Lincoln County, which has the highest unemployment rate in the state.
The mine would employ about 500 people during construction and about 350 people during mining. It would disturb more than 1,500 acres and remove up to 120 million tons of ore.
Its entrance would be just outside the wilderness area – a rugged, remote landscape that is one of a handful of areas in the United States where the government is seeking to restore grizzly bear populations.