Western Montana's Cabinet Mountains are an ecological treasure chest. Soaked with coastal moisture, the lower elevations are home to rainforests full of western cedar and hemlock. The mountains sustain populations of elk, moose, black bear, bighorn sheep and even grizzlies, and the rocky high country is studded with alpine waters, including Cliff and Copper lakes.
"It's like going into a natural church," says Cesar Hernandez, a local mining activist who first hiked the Cabinets in the mid-1970s. "How can you help but like it?"
But Copper Lake's name hints at the rich mineral deposits that underlie the area and have drawn the attention of mining companies for decades. In December, after 14 years of deliberation and controversy, the U.S. Forest Service and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality approved the Rock Creek underground silver and copper mine, proposed for the area surrounding the two lakes.
The plan has all the elements of a classic mine fight: potential threats to endangered species, possible water quality degradation, and a mining company owner with a controversial past. But this story comes with a twist: Rock Creek could be the first major mine ever built under a wilderness area.
The Dec. 26 decision gives Washington-based Sterling Mining Company the green light to drill an evaluation tunnel. The evaluation would reveal the size and composition of what's widely regarded as a world-class ore body, which sits below the wilderness in a maze of fractured bedrock. Although work on the tunnel may start this fall, it will be at least five years before the mine goes into production, says Sterling president Frank Duval.
One thing, however, is already clear. "It'll be one of the major underground mining operations for copper and silver in North America," says Duval.
The fight against the mine promises to be just as big.
As early as 1935, the northern Cabinets were protected as a primitive area by the Forest Service, and in 1964, they were included in the original Wilderness Act legislation * making the 94,272-acre Cabinet Mountains Wilderness one of the first federally designated wilderness areas in the nation. The designation did nothing to invalidate existing mining claims.
During the early 1980s, the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO) patented its claims in the wilderness, and in 1987, the company proposed a copper and silver mine at Rock Creek. But the project, burdened with environmental concerns and battered by fluctuating mineral prices, never got off the ground (HCN, 12/22/97: Can silver be mined safely from under a wilderness?). In 1999, Sterling Mining Company purchased mineral rights for Rock Creek and the now-closed Troy Mine from ASARCO.
Now that the mine has been given the go-ahead, Sterling will have to post a $77 million reclamation bond - the biggest in Montana history. Even with safeguards like that in place, mine opponents are wary of what might happen, especially given Frank Duval's past business history.
"This guy is a speculator. He's got a long history of attracting capital for risky mining ventures," says Mary Mitchell, head of the Rock Creek Alliance, a Sandpoint, Idaho-based group organized in 1996 to oppose the mine. "He'll open a project for a short time, declare bankruptcy, and then he walks away with the money."
Duval and partner Hobart Teneff were founders of now-defunct Pegasus Gold, which ran the Zortman-Landusky gold mines in northeastern Montana. After the company filed for bankruptcy in 1998, the state and federal governments were left with a $33.5 million tab for reclamation.
Duval says he left Pegasus before the company's troubles started. But he and Teneff have also had a scuffle with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission over past business practices, and Duval has been connected to several other mining ventures in the Northwest that have ended in bankruptcy.
Activists had hoped the proposal wouldn't get as far as it has, but they're gearing up for a renewed fight on several fronts. The biggest would be a challenge using the Wilderness Act. Mine opponents contend that, while the Wilderness Act recognizes a right to mine, this mine's potential impacts - including either the draining or contamination of Cliff and Copper Lakes - are clearly at odds with the spirit of the Act.
But Seattle-based Earthjustice attorney Todd True says that a host of other environmental protection laws - including the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act and Montana state law - could prove sufficient to defeat the project.
The mine could have a significant impact on the threatened Cabinet-Yaak grizzly bear population, which may be down to as few as 11 animals. An even bigger worry is its potential effect on water quality. Mine opponents contend that contaminated water discharge from the mine, or from the estimated 100 million tons of tailings the mine will produce, could release nitrates and water laden with heavy metal into the Clark Fork River, a state-designated core recovery area for the threatened bull trout. Contaminated water could also have a big impact 25 miles downstream, where the Clark Fork flows into Idaho.
"People in northern Idaho are most concerned about impacts to the water, because the discharge will be entering (Lake) Pend Oreille," says Mitchell. "Folks have seen what happened to Coeur d'Alene (from nearby Silver Valley mining pollution), and they're very concerned."
The Clark Fork is already the focus of several efforts to clean up mine pollution and nutrient loading, says Tracy Stone-Manning of the Clark Fork Coalition. "It's odd that we're spending a billion dollars on restoration and at the same time permitting a mine that would undo most of that work."
And even though the final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project came off the presses at 2,700 pages, the mine's opponents are frustrated by what they say is a lack of solid data.
"There are enormous unanswered questions about the geochemical composition of the rock and the possibility of acid mine drainage," says the Mineral Policy Center's Bonnie Gestring.
"A pig in the parlor"
Kootenai Forest Supervisor Bob Castaneda agrees that the picture isn't complete, but he says that will change when the evaluation tunnel is finished. The tunnel isn't only meant to give Sterling a better idea of the size and quality of the deposit, he says - it's also intended as a way to gather information about rock chemistry and underground water flow. An outside review of the evaluation data collected by Sterling will provide plenty of opportunity for the Forest Service to require changes, if they're necessary, says Castaneda.
"I realize that (the EIS) is not as complete as somebody would like," he says. "But at some point we have to say, 'We do have enough information to make a decision.' "
The wrangling over the approval has left Duval exasperated: "The agencies know what they're doing, and what they've done will protect the environment and the species. What else can you ask?"
Much more, answer opponents. Two lawsuits are already cooking in state and federal court. One challenges a Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion that acknowledged the potential for significant impacts to grizzly and bull trout habitat, but gave the project a conditional go-ahead. The agency recently asked a federal judge to stay the suit while it reconsiders its analysis. Mitchell of Rock Creek Alliance says that her group and at least three others will also appeal the mine approval by the end of February. That, most opponents agree, will simply be a precursor to a full-blown legal challenge of the mine approval.
"You can dress a pig in a tutu, but if you put it in the parlor, you're still going to have problems," says Earthjustice's True. "Cabinet Mountain is nature's parlor and this pig doesn't belong in it."
Matt Jenkins is assistant editor for High Country News. Ron Selden writes from Helena, Montana.
YOU CAN CONTACT ...
- Mary Mitchell, Rock Creek Alliance, 208/265-8272, www.rockcreekalliance.org
- Frank Duval, Sterling Mining Company, 509/921-2294, www.sterlingminingcompany.com;
- Bob Castaneda, Supervisor, Kootenai National Forest, 406/293-6211, www.fs.fed.us/r1/kootenai;
- Jan P. Sensibaugh, Director, Montana Department of Environmental Quality, 406/444-2544, www.deq.state.mt.us.