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News >  Idaho

Mine faces big setback

 (The Spokesman-Review)
(The Spokesman-Review)
By Becky Kramer and James Hagengruber The Spokesman-Review

A proposal to tunnel a mine under a northwest Montana wilderness area may have been dealt a mortal blow by a recent court decision, according to opponents of the mine.

The federal government was wrong in saying the Rock Creek Mine would pose “no jeopardy” to protected Cabinet Mountain grizzly bears and bull trout populations, according to the ruling issued Monday by U.S. District Judge Donald Malloy, of Missoula.

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service permitted the mine in 2003 – after acknowledging that one or two grizzly bears would likely be displaced – the agency effectively turned its back on the estimated 15 grizzly bears still roaming the Cabinet Mountains, Malloy wrote in his ruling. With fewer than five female bears in this population, even the loss of two animals could be devastating, the judge wrote.

Prior to the decision, Revett Silver Co., of Spokane Valley, said it planned to begin initial development work on the copper and silver mine this spring. Company officials could not be reached for comment late Wednesday afternoon. The mine would bore under the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness Area at Rock Creek, a tributary of the Clark Fork River, which flows into Lake Pend Oreille. The lake is a significant water source for the Spokane Valley/Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer.

Revett Silver estimates that the mine would produce about 7 million ounces of silver annually, and 54 million pounds of copper. The company recently raised $34 million in Canadian funds, with plans to complete a detailed economic and technical feasibility study of the Rock Creek project by 2007.

The strong language in the 38-page ruling will make it difficult for the mine to ever open, said Sandpoint resident Mary Mitchell, a member of the Rock Creek Alliance, one of nine conservation groups that filed the lawsuit.

“This is a huge roadblock,” Mitchell said. “This decision is more than a delay. This decision is the nail in the coffin.”

The case was argued by Tim Preso, an attorney with Earthjustice, of Bozeman. Preso, who declared the ruling a “major setback,” said the outcome is clear.

“You cannot have the grizzly bear and the bull trout and a pristine wilderness in the Cabinet Mountains if you have this mine. They’re just not compatible,” Preso said. “We don’t need copper and silver from this place so much that we have to drive species to extinction.”

Apart from harming grizzly bears, the mine was expected to impact protected bull trout in Rock Creek. The Fish and Wildlife Service said the mine would be permissible because only a subpopulation of the migratory fish would be affected. Judge Malloy noted other agency decisions, where it said the loss of even one subpopulation could harm the overall Columbia River population.

In regard to impacts to both grizzly bears and bull trout, the Fish and Wildlife Service appears to have ignored and “distorted” its own data, Malloy said. “The issue here is whether FWS legitimately chose not to include information in the record that it knew contradicted its current conclusions.”

Malloy also noted that an agency scientist said there is a 60 percent chance the Cabinet grizzly population is decreasing, yet “FWS spins this as a forty percent chance the population is going up, and that is enough for them.”

In a letter submitted to the Washington Post last year, Revett CEO Bill Orchow disputed that the mine would bring new perils to the region’s grizzly or bull trout populations.

“Revett Silver Company is required to provide millions of dollars in mitigation to assure there will be no significant effects on the protected species,” Orchow wrote. “The mitigation will include everything from bearproof garbage containers to purchasing land for protected key habitat areas near the mine to having on staff a full-time wild-life biologist and also a compliance person.”

The Rock Creek project is one of three silver-copper projects planned for the northwestern corner of Montana.

Mines Management Inc. of Spokane also wants to tunnel under Cabinet Mountain Wilderness Area to extract copper and silver. The company has started the permit work for the $236 million proposed Montanore Mine.

Revett Silver also operates the smaller Troy Mine, located 10 miles south of Troy, Mont. The mine reopened in December after being closed for more than a decade. Revett Silver hopes to bring the Troy Mine back to full production by midyear, according to the company’s Web site.

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