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Will They Ever Mine in Rock Creek?

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Mary Mitchell and Doug Helms offer opinions


Mary Mitchell: “There are adequate grounds to deny this permit.”

SANDPOINT, IDAHO - When a Republican became President of the United States a year ago, Mary Mitchell saw the handwriting on the wall. Before George Bush won the election, she had held out hope that the Rock Creek Mine would not be approved.

    “I was optimistic that the No Action alternative would be selected, until the election,” she said in a recent interview. “Bush got in and I didn’t expect (Michael) Dombeck to be Chief of the Forest Service for long. When he left, I realized this thing was going to get permitted.”

    Mitchell’s faith in Dombeck and the potential for him to lead the way in not allowing the mine to be built was expressed in the Rock Creek Alliance’s summer newsletter. Mitchell is the Executive Director of RCA, which is based in Sandpoint. “Recently, we were given an indication of the national importance of this issue when Michael Dombeck resigned as the Chief of the U.S. Forest Service. In his March 27th departure letter to Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman, Dombeck pointed to the proposed Rock Creek mine as an unacceptable threat to wilderness.”

    Sighing in exasperation, though certainly not resignation, Mitchell remarked, “There are adequate grounds to deny this permit. How many more reasons does the Forest Service need?”

    Emphasizing that the fight to stop the mine is far from over, Mitchell spelled out the Alliance’s most grievous complaints about developing a mine in Rock Creek.

    1. Impacts to the wilderness, such as the potential for catastrophic drainage of several mountain lakes, as well as the de-watering of area streams. Cliff Lake and Copper Lake are the most vulnerable. Also, Mitchell questions the legality of a proposed surface disturbance inside the wilderness: that of a ventilation adit that would be located on the northeast slope of St. Paul Peak.

    2. NFMA violations (National Forest Management Act) resulting from mining activity, which Mitchell believes would be in direct conflict with provisions of this law allowing for the beneficial management of other resources in the area, such as water quality and wildlife habitat.

    3. The affects on threatened and endangered species is expected to be horrendous by opponents of the mine. Mitchell fears both grizzly bears and bull trout will disappear from the area, with grizzlies likely becoming extinct in the Cabinets altogether because of this mine.

    4. Watershed integrity will be compromised, Mitchell maintains, because of the deleterious affects of mining activity in the drainage. “Whatever happened to ecosystem management?” she wondered out loud.

    5. The water treatment systems designed for the Rock Creek Mine will only treat nutrient pollution, she said. It is assumed, she further explained, that heavy metals will settle out of the waste water before it is discharged to the Clark Fork River, and that the agencies are depending on a mixing zone to dilute the pollutants that will make it into the river. Various forms of nitrogen and phosphorus are the components of the nutrient pollution that will be generated by the mine, while heavy metals that Mitchell claims will end up in the river (and eventually in Lake Pend Oreille) include copper, zinc, arsenic, lead, cadmium and manganese.

    6. The cumulative impacts to Lake Pend Oreille may well be what concerns the Rock Creek Alliance most. They fear a repeat of what happened in the Silver Valley to the Coeur d’Alene River and lake, where millions of dollars of taxpayer money is going to clean up one of the nation’s worst Superfund sites.

    It took over 14 years for the Forest Service and the State of Montana to analyze and then approve the plan of operations for Rock Creek. Mitchell claims to know the reason it took so long. “I really believe if it weren’t for the input from concerned citizens and groups, this decision would’ve been made long ago.”

    But now the decision has been made, and the next step for RCA is to appeal it to the Regional Forester in Missoula, Brad Powell. They have till February 26th to do so. If that fails, taking their case to court would then follow.

Doug Helms: “Progress is what we’ve lived on the last 200 years, and this is progress.”

NOXON, MONTANA - Doug Helms will be 78 years old in June, and he has lived in this valley most of his life. For a lot of his working years, he was a miner. Born and raised in Clark Fork, he still vividly remembers the White Delph, the Hope and the Lawrence mines, because he worked them as a young man back in the `40s. At one point, he leased the Lawrence mine and produced silver, lead and zinc.

    Helms also worked in the Silver Valley, where he and his wife Merna raised their six children for many years in the town of Kellogg. For 25 years, Helms worked for Washington Water Power (now Avista), retiring in 1986 to Trout Creek where he had property, and now he and his wife reside in Noxon.

    He has been a proponent of the Rock Creek Mine ever since it was first proposed by ASARCO almost 15 years ago.  “Rock Creek would be the greatest thing that could happen to this country,” Helms exclaimed. “There would be steady income, children wouldn’t have to move out to find work, and it would be a very great benefit to all the businesses. There’ll be more people, but eventually there will be, anyhow. Progress is what we’ve lived on in the last 200 years, and this is progress.”

    Doug and Merna know about kids having to leave the area to find work elsewhere. They have six children, who have 15 children of their own, and there are now eight great-grandchildren. “The environmentalists have shut down all the work in this country,” Helms said, “and a lot of people have got to go somewhere else to make a living. I wouldn’t mind my grandkids working at the mine. In fact, I’d encourage it.”

    He makes that statement despite the fact one of his children suffered from lead poisoning because of the smelter they lived near in Kellogg. But his explanation is that the smelter caused the illness, not the mining, and his daughter now shows little or no symptoms of the effects of lead in her system. Helms remarked, “There was no connection between what was going on then and people’s lives, their health (from the mining). The lead was not from the mining, it came from the smelter.

    “Back then they didn’t control the environment like they will do at Rock Creek. It will be a different process at Rock Creek altogether,” he said. “What they do in Rock Creek should have no affect whatsoever. I think it will be a good deal.”

    What Doug Helms remembers about the mines at Clark Fork explains why he feels there is nothing to fear from a mine in Rock Creek. “Those mines were critical in World War II for lead,” he said. One of them was on Spring Creek above the fish hatchery, he described, and he said, “Everything got dumped into the creek - pine oil, xanthate (a real strong chemical) and cyanide. 100% of it went into the water.”

    He recalled how the water would turn milky brown as it flowed from Spring Creek into Lightning Creek and thence into the Clark Fork River carrying its load of contamination from the mines.

    Then, naming several old-timers still in the area, he added, “Every one of us swam in that creek. It was warm, like swimming in a bowl of milk, and coming straight out of the mine.”

    “Maybe that’s why he’s so ornery,” Merna chimed in, laughing.

    “We ate the fish, drank the water, and never got sick from it,” Doug finished. “That’s strictly the point I’m trying to get over. All the stuff out of those mines flowed out of the creek and into the river, and the creek was full of fish.”

    So why are some people claiming the river and lake would be polluted, Helms was asked. “I say they don’t know what they are talking about. They’re based in fear, running scared. And some people just don’t want more people here. Retired folks don’t want workers. It goes right along with not cutting trees. Gotta conserve, they say. Conserve what?”

    Go to Clark Fork, Helms says, and look for yourself. “Those mines have been shut down for years, and now it’s just as pristine as it ever was. There are no impacts to the water or the forest. Go out there and you can’t even find those places.”



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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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