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Agencies Approve Plan of Operation for Rock Creek Mine

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NOXON, MT – On December 26, 2001, the Kootenai National Forest (KNF) and the State of Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) notified the media with a press release and a conference call that the Record of Decision (ROD) for the Rock Creek Mine had been signed and formally posted in the appropriate newspaper of record, The Daily Interlake in Kalispell, Montana. However, at the time this issue of The River Journal went to press, no one – not even the Forest Service Ranger District on which the project would be located – had received a copy of the ROD.

    A glitch at the printing office in California issuing hard copies of the ROD apparently delayed its availability. The word from John McKay, Project Team Leader for the Forest Service in Libby, was that it was to be in the mail on Monday, January 7th to the approximately 1200 people and organizations on the mailing list.

    Despite the lag time between the official declaration of its signing and when most people who want one will have it in their hands, the clock is already ticking on the timeframe anyone concerned with the decision will have to appeal it to a higher authority. Once a decision like this is made public, an appeals period 45 days in length kicks in. By the time the ROD is widely available in libraries, government offices and with various organizations, fully one fourth of the appeals period will have elapsed. Not that it matters, perhaps, as the document is available online at www.deq.state.mt.us and www.fs.fed.us/r1/kootenai, where it is comprised of 188 pages, and an electronic version of the document can be sent via email to any interested party, as was received by The River Journal this week.

    The decision that Bob Castaneda (Supervisor of the KNF) and Jan Sensibaugh (Director of DEQ) made regarding the Rock Creek Mine is to allow Sterling Mining Company to develop the ore deposit found beneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness north of Noxon. Silver and copper are the primary metals to be mined at Rock Creek. In the summary of the ROD (taken from DEQ’s website), the decision-makers wrote, “We have decided to approve Sterling’s plan of operations consistent with Alternative V (in the Final EIS), as modified with this ROD.”

    That alternative was one of four action alternatives developed during the analysis process for the proposed project. Another alternative – the so-called “No Action” alternative – was also analyzed in the EIS. Though well-organized opposition to the mine encouraged the agencies to select the No Action alternative, it was generally accepted that sooner or later they would approve the plan of operations. In the context of permitting mining operations in the past, this decision came much later rather than sooner. From the time ASARCO first filed the application for a permit to develop a mine in Rock Creek to the day the ROD was announced was pushing 15 years.

    Just over the Cabinet Divide from Rock Creek, Noranda’s Montanore Project south of Libby was approved in less than four years during the early `90s, though construction still has not begun on that mine.

    In the ROD summary, it is stated that the plan of operations for Rock Creek will be implemented in two phases. The first phase involves construction of an evaluation adit (a tunnel that will access the ore body) and the collection of data that will better define the ore that Sterling wants to remove. The second phase will then consist of construction of the mine, its operation and subsequent reclamation once the ore is exhausted and the mine can be closed. The life of the mine is expected to be around 30 years.

    Whether the Rock Creek Mine will ever come on line is still a question mark for many people. Mine opponents have vowed to appeal the decision and go to court if necessary to see the decision overturned. But perhaps even more ominous for the mine’s future is the present market condition for metals like silver and copper, both of which have been depressed for years. In order for the mine to have any chance of being profitable, the metals market must show significant improvement before the project could ever be developed.

    Though the Record of Decision has now been signed and the agencies have decided to approve Sterling’s plan of operations for the Rock Creek Mine, the reality is that several years remain before construction could begin. Appeals and lawsuits will dominate the process over the next two to four years, in all likelihood, while anxious miners keep an eye on the market.


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Dennis Nicholls Dennis Nicholls was the founder, publisher, janitor and paperboy of the River Journal from 1993 to 2001. He passed away in 2009.

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