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Montana court voids permit for Rock Creek Mine

A Spokane Valley company will need to secure a more detailed water quality permit to develop a silver and copper mine beneath Montana’s Cabinet Mountain Wilderness. The Montana Supreme Court on Monday voided a storm water permit for road improvements needed for the proposed Rock Creek Mine in the lower Clark Fork River drainage across the state line from Sandpoint. A four-judge majority found that the permit the state issued Revett Minerals Inc. is not strict enough to protect a threatened population of bull trout in Rock Creek, a tributary of the Clark Fork above Lake Pend Oreille. John Shanahan, president and CEO of Revett Minerals, said the decision was disappointing but not a setback in the company’s plans. Revett already has applied for the more involved permit and expects that it could be issued by early 2013, he said. “We’ve got to move on. It’s not a road block,” Shanahan said today. “We’re all very committed to seeing this project done. We believe that this project is a showcase for responsible development.” The court upheld a decision issued by a Montana district court in July 2011 finding that the Montana Department of Environmental Quality violated the state’s water quality laws when it issued a general construction permit instead of preparing an individual permit designed to protect Rock Creek’s spawning beds and feeding pools from sediment. “The mine’s impacts to Rock Creek and its bull trout population would be devastating,” Jim Costello of the Rock Creek Alliance environmental group said today in a news release. “The state knew this, but chose to treat this discharge as insignificant….” The proposed mine is fiercely opposed by environmental groups. Mining companies have floated plans for the silver-copper deposit for three decades, but a series of lawsuits has stalled the mine’s development. Revett, which operates a similar mine in Troy, Mont., bought the Rock Creek Mine in 1999. The company anticipates operating the new mine at least 30 years, producing about 6 million ounces of silver and 50 million pounds of copper each year. About 300 people would work there. The tallest environmental hurdle cleared, Shanahan said, was a biological opinion that the mine will not endanger wildlife. Last year the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the mine’s development would not imperil the region’s threatened grizzly bears and would impact a relatively small portion of critical bull trout habitat – both concerns raised by environmentalists. That opinion plus an environmental impact statement expected early next year are needed to secure final approval for the mine from the U.S. Forest Service. Shanahan said he hopes Revett can get to that point by mid-2013. And then it will still take about five years of development work before mining could begin, he said.
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