Environmentalists are rallying residents here to fight ASARCO’s Rock Creek silver mine, saying the operation will pollute Lake Pend Oreille.
“The issue is water. Period,” said Diane Williams, a member of the Clark Fork-Pend Oreille Coalition that has fought the proposed mine for years.
The coalition’s main worry is ASARCO’s plan to use experimental technology to treat thousands of gallons of mine wastewater. That water then will be pumped into the Clark Fork River, which feeds Lake Pend Oreille.
“ASARCO is party to 20 Superfund sites around the nation. Let’s face it, the company has a horrid reputation and we don’t want another mess coming our way,” Williams said.
ASARCO wants to open one of the largest silver and copper mines in North America. It will be located in Montana’s Cabinet Mountains, 25 miles upstream from Lake Pend Oreille.
The company has applied for a wastewater discharge permit for the mine. Two public hearings on the permit are scheduled for Tuesday in Noxon, Mont., and April 11 in Sandpoint.
The permit would allow ASARCO to pump up to 1,700 gallons of water a minute into the Clark Fork River.
The company also expects its tailing impoundment, a 340-acre storage area for mine waste, to seep about 400,000 gallons of water a day into the ground.
Dave Young, ASARCO’s project manager for the Rock Creek mine, insists the discharged water will be safe. It will be treated to meet state guidelines before being sent into the river, he said.
“We realize water quality is a concern for the public and I think we have addressed those concerns,” Young said. “We are not going to risk a $160 million project because we can’t meet water quality standards.”
ASARCO said it will use an experimental treatment system, called a passive bioreactor. It’s basically a combination of soil, straw, sawdust and manure that will filter out nutrients and trace metals from the mine water.
“We readily admit it’s new technology, but have every confidence it will work,” Young said. In case it doesn’t work, the company also will install a backup system.
ASARCO also plans to use pumps and monitoring wells to capture water that seeps from its tailings pond. Contaminated water will be sent back to the impoundment or through the treatment system.
“The pump-back system is more unproven technology,” Williams said. “ASARCO is saying, ‘Trust us. By the time the mine is operational we will have all this figured out.’ And we are saying, ‘No, no, no.”’
ASARCO admits its pumps won’t capture all of the seepage from the tailings pond. About 350 gallons of water per minute still will go into the ground. Williams said that water could contaminate the area and likely will reach the river, a quarter-mile away.
Environmentalists and residents have asked for the tailings pond to be layered with a synthetic liner to stop seepage.
The coalition points to ASARCO’s nearby Troy, Mont., mine as an example of what could happen at Rock Creek. A Montana Environmental group filed a lawsuit against ASARCO, claiming that mine waste at the now-idled Troy mine has polluted two nearby creeks. The suit also says water discharged from the mine into the Kootenai River has harmed fish and water quality.
Young said accusations in the suit are unfounded. There were minor problems at Troy, he said, which were fixed.
“The bottom line is there have been problems at the Troy mine,” Williams said. “Now ASARCO wants to build another mine three times that size closer to a body of water. It’s ridiculous, and those of us downstream want some assurances that our rivers and lake will not be polluted.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Map of area
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: MEETINGS Public hearings on the permit are scheduled for Tuesday in Noxon, Mont., and April 11 in Sandpoint.
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