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A Second Mine Proposal Threatens the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness

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St Paul Lake (photo by Brenda Haase) is also at risk St Paul Lake (photo by Brenda Haase) is also at risk

There's (copper and silver) in them thar hills... and everyone wants it.


Miners have long sought the copper, silver, and gold ore that lies beneath Montana’s Cabinet Mountains. Abandoned old mines litter the mountainsides, a testament to past mining operations. Most were small compared to today’s mines, but many have left a mark, leaching pollutants into local waterways from abandoned piles of waste rock and gaping holes that lead to underground caverns. The owners of these mines are long gone. The scars they produced are carved into the landscape for the conceivable future, and cleanup costs are now borne by Montana’s taxpayers.

With the rise in minerals prices over the last several years, investors and speculators are eying the ore beneath the Cabinets with renewed interest. Current owners of once idle projects are now looking to reopen, adding to the cumulative pool of mining impacts this ecosystem must endure. One of the largest of these previously dormant projects is the proposed Montanore mine. The mine’s current owners, Mines Management or Montanore Minerals, are aggressively pushing for permits from the Forest Service and Montana DEQ to resume exploratory drilling and begin construction. 

The Montanore mine would be located on the Kootenai National Forest 18 miles south of Libby. Its ore body abuts that of the proposed Rock Creek mine, the two ore bodies separated by a fault running through the mountain range. Mine facilities and tailings piles for both mines would be only a few air miles apart.  

Like the proposed Rock Creek mine, Montanore would be an underground copper/silver mine with an above ground tailings impoundment and processing facilities. The ore that it would exploit would come from beneath the Cabinet Mountains, much of it sequestered beneath Rock Lake in the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness. The proposed Rock Creek and Montanore mines would be two of the largest underground copper/silver mines of their type in North America, and both would mine the same small wilderness. 

Wilderness Map

The permitting process for the Montanore Project began in 1989 when the previous owner, Noranda Minerals, obtained a permit to construct an exploration adit (tunnel) in the Libby Creek drainage just outside the wilderness. In 1991, Noranda halted construction of the 14,000-foot exploratory adit just a few thousand feet short of the ore body when the amount of nitrate pollution generated from blasting operations degraded Libby Creek. A state directive mandating the construction of a water treatment facility, combined with low metals prices, led the company to abandon the project before ever reaching the ore. 

Almost from the get go, the Montanore project has been exempt from regulations implemented to protect Montana’s water from pollution. In 1992, at the request of Noranda Minerals, the state issued an order that would allow an increase in the concentration of certain pollutants discharged to surface water and groundwater above water quality standards set forth under Montana’s 1971 non-degradation statute.  

Under the current mining proposal, pollutants—including copper, chromium, iron, manganese, and zinc, as well as nitrates and total inorganic nitrogen—could still be discharged at higher concentrations than other dischargers could hope to get away with.  MMI has argued that the 19-year order should stand despite changes in water quality standards, best available technology, new findings related to the impacts of the mine, and the presence of threatened bull trout in most of the impacted streams. The state plans to grant that request. 

Mining facilities would include a tailings impoundment located between Poorman Creek and Little Cherry Creek. The impoundment would require the construction of a dam big enough to contain 120 million tons of mine tailings and waste rock. At completion, it would be 320 feet high, 10,650 feet long, and consume 675 acres of National Forest Land. The location of this impoundment has been plagued by problems arising from the presence of wetlands and seasonal springs, and the amount of space required to hold the massive amount of tailings.

The proposed mine would create a host of environmental problems. At the forefront is the extensive dewatering that would result from the excavation of an enormous underground mine cavity that would divert virtually all of the groundwater in the region of the proposed mine. Impacts would be felt in both the Clark Fork and Kootenai River drainages, with groundwater depletion and reductions in stream flows most pronounced in the East Fork of Rock Creek, Rock Creek, the East Fork of Bull River, Libby Creek, Ramsey Creek and Poorman Creek. The EIS for the mine predicts that after mine closure, the East Fork of Bull River and the East Fork of Rock Creek would be hardest hit, losing 100 percent of their ground water recharge.

The massive dewatering created by the mine would be ominous for the area’s bull trout populations.  Bull trout were listed as threatened in 1998, and since that time bull trout critical habitat has been designated in the East Fork of Bull River, Rock Creek, and Libby Creek. To make matters worse, the East Fork of Bull River, which would be impacted the most, has the most productive bull trout fishery in the Lower Clark Fork River Bull Trout Recovery Area. With groundwater levels not expected to improve until reaching a steady state 1,200 to 1,300 years after mining ceased, or not at all, bull trout would be left high and dry, literally, in these critical streams.

As if dewatering of key bull trout streams was not a big enough problem, wilderness lakes would also feel the pinch. Deriving only a small amount of their water from rain and snowmelt, the area’s alpine lakes are typically dependent on groundwater recharge. Most heavily impacted would be Rock and St Paul Lakes. Both are extremely popular hiking destinations. Park at the trailhead for either, and you will consistently see cars from Montana, Idaho, Washington, and beyond. 

EIS modeling predictions are most dire for Rock Lake, which sits almost on top of the ore body, aptly named the Rock Lake Ore Body.  Estimates are that the water table surrounding Rock Lake would be lowered by as much as 1,000 feet with groundwater flows not returning to pre-mining levels for 1,000 years. Rock Lake would slowly be starved of the ground water essential for survival. 

St. Paul Lake, already subject to low water levels during the dry summer months, would not be spared.  This alpine lake would become a mere pond, drying up shortly after winter snowmelt disappears.

As with the Rock Creek mine, fish and wildlife populations would suffer from habitat loss, disturbance, increases in hunting and fishing pressure, and poaching.  Bull trout, westslope cutthroat and redband trout would be impacted not only from dewatering, but also from the introduction of sediment and heavy metals into local spawning streams.  The construction of 16 miles of overhead transmission line to supply power to the mine would only add to the mine’s impacts. 

Declining populations and extreme sensitivity to human activities lend a particular vulnerability to several species in the area of the proposed mine. Grizzly bears, lynx, wolverines, and mountain goats would face the brunt of the mine’s impacts. The former two species are listed as threatened and the wolverine is a candidate for listing. Construction of mine tunnels (including one above Rock Lake), mine facilities, roads, and power lines would mean blasting, heavy equipment operation, increased traffic, and helicopter use. This massive industrialization, coupled with that of the Rock Creek mine, could create intolerable stress for these species. It is anticipated that the scale of this disturbance would negatively impact over 25,000-acres of grizzly bear habitat and would likely result in the loss of the entire Rock Creek mountain goat herd.

The noise and visual impacts from mining operations would reach well into the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness. Blasting of the evaluation adit would generate noise louder than that of a jet engine, and would be audible on the ridge between Elephant Peak and Ojibway Peak near Rock Lake. Continuous industrial lighting would displace the solitude of the wilderness. Coupled with the impacts to alpine lakes, the wilderness would likely never recover from the industrial onslaught. 

In spite of the costs to local water resources, fish and wildlife, and the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, the community of Libby is staunchly advocating for the mine.  Many in the community see the lure of mining jobs as the economic salvation for this troubled area. Regardless of their perspective, a single community does not own the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness and the reach of the Montanore mine would extend well beyond the Libby Creek drainage and the communities along the Kootenai River. This mine would dry up the Rock Creek Meadows, the East Fork of Bull River and likely even impact Bull River itself. The proposed project would affect everyone who recreates in the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness.

It seems apparent that the Kootenai National Forest is bent on permitting both projects, resulting in cumulative impacts to water, wildlife, and wilderness. The dewatering impacts from Montanore have been well documented in the most recent EIS. The Rock Creek mine would also capture massive amounts of groundwater—as much as 3 million gallons per day. Grizzly bears and other wildlife species would lose huge chunks of habitat, the loss from one mine exacerbating the loss from the other.  Industrialization from both mines would hem in the wilderness on both the north and the south. How the Forest Service will address these and other cumulative impacts, as the law mandates, remains unclear. 

The feeding frenzy in the Cabinet Mountains will undoubtedly persist, fueled by high metal prices and the archaic 1872 Mining Law that prioritizes the mining of our public lands over all other uses. Unwary investors unaware of the legal complexities and challenges that both mines face by a coalition of local citizens and environmental groups, will throw money at these projects as long as they appear profitable. Closer to home, the federal and state agencies will work to clear the permitting hurdles, while those opposed to these mines will continue to fight them every step of the way. 

The Kootenai National Forest and Montana DEQ are accepting written comments on the Montanore Project Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement until December 21, 2011. The SDEIS and information on how to submit comments can be accessed on the Kootenai National Forest website at http://tinyurl.com/6nllpqm.

Mary Costello writes for Save Our Cabinets (www.SaveOurCabinets.org). She is the Executive Director of the Rock Creek Alliance and lives in Trout Creek, Montana.


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Author info

Mary Costello Mary Costello writes for Save Our Cabinets (www.SaveOurCabinets.org). She is the Executive Director of the Rock Creek Alliance (www.RockCreekAlliance.org) and lives in Trout Creek, Montana.

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Homepage, Headlines, Montana, Rock Creek, Rock Creek Mine, Libby, mining, mines, Mines Management, Montanore Minerals, Montanore Mine, Kootenai National Forest, Rock Lake, St Paul Lake

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