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If Libby Wants It, Then Let Them Have It

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Currents on mining for copper

Bobbing down our favorite local river (which shall remain unnamed except to observe that it does not flow into or out of Bull Lake) about three miles an hour and watching the Cabinets scroll past, it occurred to me how important ‘place’ is to our lives. Every slow spin presented a different view, and each new perspective held memories. 

There is the clear cut where I was laying out a survey stake line on 100 newly planted trees and had the interesting experience of early onset hypothermia (or Alzheimer’s). It was June 6 and I hadn’t packed for 6 inches of snow; midway through, I forgot how to write a five. The next forestry tech sent out to check the survival rate might have wondered about those backward fives. 

There is Billiard with its hidden lake that I once hiked to after seeing it on the aerial photo I was using to locate an old mefe-filled clear cut. A curve in the river gives us the horse tooth-like ridge of Chicago Peak. The photo I was using in ’78 to do regen surveys in the big clear cuts showed a road continuing past the unit. It appeared to end near the Wilderness boundary. That weekend, we drove up there with the kids, followed the trail at the end of the road and ‘discovered’ a hanging plateau of ponds, flowers, and waterfalls that curves gently around to Cliff Lake. 

This Wilderness plateau is beyond mere loveliness; it encompasses beauty, serenity. My son and I were there when ASARCO sent in helicopters to off-load drilling pipe. The first consideration that the Forest Service had given this project was a weakly written Environmental Assessment. It was pulled together in the winter using the very same aerial photos and full of glaring mistakes—i.e. vastly underestimating the volume of water in Cliff Lake.

We were shocked that mining could occur under a legally designated Wilderness and joined a Troy/Libby organization, Cabinet Resource Group, which had some success in improving resource extraction projects. There was a yard sale to pay for a lawyer, and some important changes were made—i.e. water could not be drawn out of Cliff Lake to cool the drilling process—but ASARCO doesn’t need yard sales to finance their position and the exploratory drilling was permitted.

ASARCO pretty well did what they wanted at their Troy Mine. They refused to consider putting the tailings back into this largest underground ‘open pit’ mine; their argument being they might want to later take away the pillars that support the ground above. The roof and some of the pillars are now deteriorating and falling. A miner was killed. Ground above is sinking. Barrels of unknowns were buried in the tailings pond. 

Revett now owns the Troy Mine and the Rock Creek claims. The new managers seem to be smarter than the ASARCO bullies, but their bottom line is the same—profit for the shareholders. They are running a great PR project in Sanders County, wooing local politicians and newspaper editors with potential tax gains to be realized when they build a mill to grind the rock they dig out of Chicago Peak. 

Let’s review some of the potential losses. An industrial site will replace the junction of two little creeks where the berries hang thick from the bushes. Daily traffic on the Rock Creek Road will jump with trucks hauling ore from the mill to a railroad site near the present Noxon Dump. A heavy, 600-acre tailings pond would be perched above the super-saturated soils that continually slump (remember this summer’s extensive road repair around the 16 mile marker?) and cause the highway to sag ominously towards the railroad and reservoir. Perpetually leaking tailings seepage will have to be perpetually treated to remove the toxic elements.

It might be easy for folks upstream in Plains and Thompson Falls to accept these problems, but it is hard to understand how anyone in Noxon or Heron or Clark Fork, living among the Cabinets with clean, pure water, would accept this destruction.

It is surely not politically correct to scream not in my backyard, but the silver and copper could be mined from the other side of the Cabinets. The Noranda Mine on the Libby side has its permits in place. Libby wants this mine, Libby has a need (best not to analyze this) for this mine. If Revett could work with Noranda, all the minerals could be pulled out, milled and transported on the Libby side. The tailings pond would be their problem. Sanders County would still get tax money from the minerals lying under Sanders County even if mined and milled in another county. We could have our cake and eat it too.

On a sunny afternoon, floating down a clean, clear river, seeing bear and chasing mergansers, viewing the familiar and well-loved Cabinets is having the cake, eating it and rolling in the crumbs.

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Lou Springer Lou Springer lives in Heron when not out on a river somewhere.

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