Thanks to President Clinton, you've probably heard of the New World Mine that was to be built near Yellowstone. And you may have heard of the proposed McDonald gold mine on the Blackfoot River near Lincoln, Mont. Thank Norman Maclean and his novel A River Runs Through It for laying the groundwork of concern.
But lacking a national park nearby, or
an award-winning novel and movie to publicize its existence, the
93,000-acre Cabinet Mountains Wilderness has failed to achieve
national or even Western visibility.
attention is another matter. For nearly 30 years, in this part of
rural northwest Montana, a quiet environmental battle has been
simmering between activists and two companies with mining claims on
the east and west sides of the wilderness.
at stake is a precedent-setting use of wilderness lands. What could
turn out to be the world's richest silver and copper mine is
located inside and adjacent to a designated wilderness
ASARCO's Rock Creek Mine would tunnel three
miles underneath the little-known wilderness to extract some $2
billion worth of copper and silver ore. The ore would be milled in
an industrial complex located just west of the wilderness
boundaries on public lands alongside Rock Creek. This mine has not
yet been permitted and is at the center of mining conflict on the
east side of the Cabinets.
years ago, on the east side of the Cabinets, is the underground
Noranda silver and copper mine. Hampered by a lawsuit dealing with
the validity of its mining claim, as well as by financial problems,
the mine has yet to break ground. Nevertheless, Noranda is
considered a done deal by many
Because of that, most local
attention has focused on the ASARCO Rock Creek Project, which
awaits permitting from the Forest Service. After the draft
Environmental Impact Statement (draft EIS) drew over 2,000 public
comments, the agency went back to the drawing board to create a
supplemental EIS, due Dec. 22 of this year.
quality is the crux of the issue. For 25-30 years, 2,500 gallons
per minute of groundwater will flow into the underground Rock Creek
mine, picking up ammonia and high levels of nitrates, as well as
copper, silver and other heavy metals. While some of this inflow
will be used in the mill, the bulk of it will be treated and
discharged, via a pipeline, into the Clark Fork River. ASARCO is
confident its technologies will work, but community activists are
concerned that the primary and secondary treatment procedures -
anoxic biotreatment cell and "reverse osmosis' - are unproved for
high-volume mining applications, and that water downstream will
Water quality is of crucial importance at
Rock Creek because the drainage is a vital part of Montana's bull
trout recovery hopes. The state has pledged to protect the
soon-to-be-listed bull trout through the efforts of Gov. Marc
Racicot's Bull Trout Recovery Team.
to build a five-mile-long pipeline to carry the treated water
downstream to a tailings impoundment alongside the Clark Fork
River, thereby, it says, bypassing and eliminating any threat to
Rock Creek and its bull trout. ASARCO has also petitioned the state
to have Rock Creek delisted from its threatened stream
Diane Williams, the Idaho
coordinator of the nonprofit Rock Creek Alliance, disagrees. Her
group believes that contaminated water will inevitably reach Rock
Creek through groundwater or leaks in the
"Here you have a mining company
(ASARCO) whose environmental record shows 21 Superfund sites,"
Williams says. "Just up the road (at ASARCO's Troy Mine in Montana)
you have ongoing lawsuits and environmental problems. Yet they
expect the public to believe that this mine (Rock Creek) will be
Cesar Hernandez of the Cabinet
Resource Group, another nonprofit, has concerns about containing
tailings "on very questionable ground." The 300-foot-high, 340-acre
impoundment is slated for an alluvial bed a quarter mile from the
Clark Fork River, on Forest Service land. Hernandez says the entire
tailings pile could "break loose, moving like a giant iceberg
downstream." Testing to determine stability is currently being
conducted at the site.
In addition, Hernandez is
concerned that ASARCO has proposed a "wet" impoundment that uses no
liner to stop leakage. An experimental "paste technology' -
de-watered tailings with the consistency of wet concrete - has been
used only for underground backfilling, not as a surface solution.
It poses a problem because the tailings will eventually dry to the
consistency of sand. "Sand," Hernandez says, "is subject to rain,
snow, freezing, whatever. We all know what happens to a pile of
sand when it's left out in the open - it moves. And in this case it
will move either towards Rock Creek or towards the river ... or
Dave Young, ASARCO's Troy spokesperson,
disagrees. According to Young, "there is little to no chance the
tailings pond will move at all - it will be as solid as any
tailings impoundment present today." In regard to the lack of a
liner, Young says that "liners give a false sense of security, and
the high expense doesn't guarantee security."
There is also
concern about the grizzly bear population. According to Wayne
Kasworn of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as of 1988 there
were fewer than 15 grizzlies remaining in the Cabinet portion of
the Yaak/Cabinets study area, and there is no data to suggest that
the population was changed dramatically in the past ten years.
He says, "The mine is certainly going to occupy
some grizzly habitat. With Noranda permitted, we have to deal with
ASARCO as if the Noranda mine is already there. Those two mines -
with five or six airline miles between them - would essentially
create the potential for pinching off the entire southern end of
the grizzly bear population."
While there is
good evidence that the northern portion of the grizzly population
is growing in the Yaak, Kasworn says it is "a serious situation" in
the Cabinets. Approximately one-third of the Cabinet grizzly bear
recovery area will be affected by the ASARCO
Finally, the credibility of the state's
role in the permitting process has become an issue. The
environmental consultants, OEA Research Inc. of Helena, which
helped research the potential impact of the mine, last year accused
state officials of distorting their scientific analysis in order to
downplay the potential degradation. As a result, an approved errata
sheet, which attempted to clarify language deemed misleading by the
OEA group, accompanied the draft EIS.
to Paul Kaiser, the Forest Service's project coordinator, once the
supplemental EIS is released this month, there will be a public
comment period, at the end of which a record of decision will be
released by December 1998. Says Kaiser, "Under perfect
circumstances - if the project is approved, if the core samples
prove substantial enough, if there are no lawsuits - the earliest
the mine could begin operation would be sometime in 1999."
Colin Chisholm writes from
* Diane Williams, Idaho Coordinator of
the Rock Creek Alliance, 1319 N. Division, Suite 106 Sandpoint, ID
* Paul Kaiser, Kootenai
National Forest, 506 Highway 2 West, Libby, MT 59923
* Dave Young, ASARCO Inc.,
P.O. Box 868, Troy, MT 59935 (406/295-5887, ext.