The Montana Supreme Court voided a key water quality permit for the proposed Rock Creek Mine on Monday, holding that the state’s use of a permitting shortcut would not sufficiently protect Rock Creek’s threatened bull trout population, a resource of “unique ecological significance” under state law. The Rock Creek Mine is a controversial mining project that would excavate for silver and copper underneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness in the lower Clark Fork River drainage near Idaho.
The Supreme Court upheld a decision issued by a Montana district court in July 2011, finding that the Montana Department of Environmental Quality violated Montana’s water quality laws when it issued a general construction permit that would allow the mining company to degrade Rock Creek, instead of preparing an individual permit specifically designed to protect Rock Creek’s uniquely sensitive resources.
The Supreme Court agreed, citing the final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which described Rock Creek’s bull trout population as “an essential stock for conservation purposes,” and the stronger of the “only two stocks in the Lower Clark Fork considered to have enough individuals to avoid significant risk of extinction.”
Construction of the mine would discharge massive amounts of sediment to Rock Creek, increasing sediment loading by 38% overall. Fine sediment smothers bull trout eggs, dramatically decreasing survival. The discharge, slated to occur for five to seven years, would encompass the full seven-year life span of a bull trout.
“The mine’s impacts to Rock Creek and its bull trout population would be devastating,” said Jim Costello of the Rock Creek Alliance. “The state knew this, but chose to treat this discharge as insignificant by issuing a general construction permit that ignores the importance of Rock Creek.
“The Rock Creek bull trout population is critical to the recovery of the species in the Clark Fork Watershed,” said Bonnie Gestring of Earthworks. “This decision prevents the company from cutting corners to avoid protecting Montana’s native trout.”
The court agreed with the four plaintiff organizations, which include the Rock Creek Alliance, Earthworks, Clark Fork Coalition and Trout Unlimited, and issued a summary judgment voiding the permit. The court’s action precludes any construction activities until the state prepares a detailed, site-specific permit for the mine in accordance with state law, and with full public review.
Karen Knudsen, executive director for the Clark Fork Coalition was gratified that the Supreme Court upheld the decision. “The court validated our contention all along that Rock Creek is too important to dismiss.”
The proposed mine is widely opposed by a diverse group of businesses, local governments, and conservation and sporting organizations in the region concerned about the long-term pollution the mine would generate.