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Montana's Mine and Idaho's Election

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Is the Rock Creek Mine an election issue?

For the past 15 years ASARCO, and then Sterling Mining Co., have been working to obtain approval to build a copper/silver mine in the heart of the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness near Noxon, Montana. For 15 years, Idaho officials have been pretty quiet about this mine, despite what could be serious impacts on Idaho water – including the already threatened Lake Pend Oreille. This year, however, the 30th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, the proposed Rock Creek Mine is playing a much larger role in Idaho politics – in part due to the efforts of the not-for-profit Rock Creek Alliance.

    “I think (this is happening now) because a lot of people didn’t think the mine was ever going to get a permit,” explained Mary Mitchell, executive director of RCA. “It’s been 15 years and the proposal has waxed and waned over time. But with the Record of Decision issued by the Forest Service that permitted the mine, I think elected officials are hearing from their constituents again.”

    It was the day after Christmas, 2001, when the Kootenai National Forest and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality announced that the Record of Decision for the Rock Creek Mine had been signed and published as required, and that it allowed Sterling Mining Company to develop the ore deposit lying beneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness. That decision followed the release of a Biological Opinion by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service which stated the Rock Creek project would not “adversely effect” threatened and endangered species of wildlife living in the wilderness area.

    Rock Creek Alliance had filed a lawsuit against the BO, a suit in which they have prevailed, for now. In April this year USFWS withdrew their biological opinion in response to the suit. That was followed by the withdrawal of the Record of Decision by the Kootenai National Forest. USFWS is currently drafting a new biological opinion.

    Still, folks in this area saw how very likely it could be that, at some point in the future, Sterling Mining will be allowed to pull silver and copper out of the wilderness area. Some believe it’s time for Idaho lawmakers to act.

    “The State of Idaho can request certain provisions,” Mitchell explained. “A critical issue (for Idaho) is the cumulative impacts of allowed pollutants to Lake Pend Oreille. Even if you assume everything (at the mine) will work as planned, that doesn’t negate the fact that they’ll be dumping pollutants into our lake every day. The cumulative analysis requested by the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality was never conducted. Add to that the fact that nine out of 13 mines in Montana predicted not to have water quality impacts now have serious problems and you begin to see how important an issue this is for Idaho’s lake and Idaho’s watershed.”

    Lighthawk, a non-profit group from Helena that provides the services of volunteer pilots who give aerial tours of environmentally sensitive areas, worked recently in conjunction with the Alliance to take several state and local political candidates on a fly-over of the Rock Creek drainage. “It really gives you a perspective of how close the river is (to the proposed mining area) when you see that area from the air,” Mitchell explained.

    Following a fly-over by Jerry Brady, Democratic candidate for governor, several local candidates requested a fly-over. All Democratic and Republican candidates for county commissioner and the District 1 state legislature were invited. Those who elected to go included: county commissioner candidates Wayne Benner (D), Brian Orr (D) and Marcia Phillips (R); and state legislative candidates Gary Pietsch (D), Sandy Lamson (D) and Dale Van Stone (D). George Eskridge (R), asked to be included in the flyover but RCA was unable to accommodate him at this time. Governor Kempthorne was also invited to participate, but has not responded at this time.


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Landon Otis

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