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Asarco Brings Mine Debate To Sandpoint Opponents Skeptical Of Company’s Promise To Protect Environment

Jobs vs. the environment. That’s what the battle over Asarco’s proposed Rock Creek mine has boiled down to.

Asarco insists residents can have both.

Environmentalists say it’s not possible.

The silver and copper mine, expected to be the largest in North America, can’t operate in the Montana wilderness without polluting it, opponents said at a public hearing Wednesday night.

More than 300 people gathered at the Panida Theater here to comment on the project. The majority opposed the mine. Some sang songs and read poems - including one about the open pit mine in Butte, Mont. - to make their point.

Others booed and made derogatory comments to the surprisingly large number of mine supporters, who included the Coeur d’Alene Chamber of Commerce.

“This is Sandpoint, not Coeur d’Alene,” shouted some audience members who were asked to sign up to speak or leave the meeting.

The mine, to be located at Noxon, Mont., just across the border from Idaho, would provide about 350 much-needed jobs. Sanders County would reap about $1.5 million a year in property taxes.

But some residents and environmentalists worry Idaho will be the dumping ground for Asarco’s mine waste. Water quality concerns outweigh the corporate profits, they said.

“The issue is not about jobs. It’s about whether you can mine without causing environmental problems,” said Diane Williams, a member of the Rock Creek Alliance which is fighting the project.

Asarco has the right to take the minerals, she said, but not ruin the water, wilderness and wildlife in the process. “They don’t have the right to take our treasures in pursuit of theirs,” she said.

Wastewater would be pumped from the mine into the Clark Fork River, which flows into Lake Pend Oreille. The mine could discharge more than 3 million gallons of wastewater a day. Asarco plans to filter the water twice with a state-of-the-art system. Any water released into the river will meet state water quality standards, company officials said.

Mine opponents labeled Asarco’s technology “experimental” and un proven. “It’s silliness,” said resident Chuck Benbrook, predicting waterfront property prices will fall if the mine opens.

“That mine is going to destroy Rock Creek, the Clark Fork River, and God knows what it will do to Lake Pend Oreille. Just say no.”

Several miners and members of the timber industry spoke in favor of the mine, saying Asarco is getting a “bad rap.” The company has spent millions to make the project environmentally sound and meet Montana’s stringent regulations, said Montana state Rep. Robin Curtis. The company also made changes in its water treatment and mine waste storage system to allay fears about water pollution.

“If I felt Asarco was willing to destroy our valley, I would be against this mine,” added Clint Jensen, a Troy, Mont., miner.

Residents objected to the tailings pond, a 340-acre site to store mine waste. The waste pile would tower 325 feet high and be about 2,000 feet from the Clark Fork River. The pile was to be an unstable slurry mix that would seep water into the ground. Asarco changed the plan because of complaints. The tailings impoundment will now use less water, making the mound a more stable paste.

“We answered your concerns and came up with a better project,” said Asarco spokesman Dave Young. “We have listened.”

The public has until March 11 to submit written comments about the proposal.

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