About the Issue
The bigger the mine, the bigger the risks—financial and environmental—and make no mistake, the Rock Creek Mine as proposed is immense. The proposal calls for tunneling three miles deep into the heart of the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness. Ore will be mined by blasting and hauling of the rock to a mill facility located within grizzly bear habitat in the Rock Creek drainage. Mining will create large underground rooms held up by rock pillars. One hundred million tons of waste rock (tailings) will be dumped in an unlined pile just a quarter mile upstream from the Clark Fork River.
- Approximately 10,000 tons of rock will be moved per day.
- More than 3,000,000 gallons of wastewater will be discharged into the Clark Fork River each day, eventually ending up in Lake Pend Oreille.
- The 3,000,000 gallons of mine water would require treatment long after the mine’s closure. Treatment facilities would have to be maintained for generations to continuously treat mine effluent prior to its discharge into the Clark Fork River.
- The mine would leave a permanent mountain of tailings over 300 feet high, covering a half square mile, that would contain metals such as arsenic, lead, copper and zinc, plus nitrates from blasting compounds, that would leach into groundwater destined for the Clark Fork River.
- A 64-acre underground reservoir containing 207 million gallons of once pristine water, now polluted by mining operations, would be left behind to leach pollutants into ground and surface waters, requiring treatment in perpetuity and forever altering the hydrology of the wilderness.
Needless to say, the Rock Creek Mine is massive in any venue, but with the proposed project adjacent to a federally protected wilderness and a mere 25 miles upstream from Idaho’s Lake Pend Oreille, the magnitude of its impacts are much more significant. The risks are real, and the State of Montana acknowledges that the alpine lakes within the wilderness would suffer water loss from development of this mine. Unfortunately, the state’s required reclamation/remediation bond for the mine would not cover damage to wilderness lakes and streams nor any damage to Lake Pend Oreille.
The Rock Creek Mine will destroy bull trout habitat, cripple grizzly bear populations, pollute the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness with industrial light and noise, and leave an unsightly, toxic mess for future generations of Montanans and Idahoans to deal with.
The Rock Creek Mine is big. The disaster it is likely to unleash is even bigger.
Call it the “Midas Curse”, but as long as there is gold, or, in this case, copper and silver, someone will come up with a scheme to get their hands on it.
The Rock Creek Mine has a long and checkered history, with one company after another reviewing and passing on the project. Here, is a brief account of the long history of the Rock Creek Mine.
Bear Creek (Kennecott) Minerals discovered the ore body beneath the Cabinet Mountains in 1963. When the Wilderness Act was being written into law, mining interests demanded that pre-existing mining claims be grandfathered into areas that were destined to be wilderness and that they be allowed a 20 year window (until 1983) to file additional claims. The Cabinets suffered from this short-sighted compromise. When the ecosystem became one of the first 10 areas included in the Wilderness Act of 1964, accompanying the protections afforded by wilderness designation were mining claims that continue to haunt the region.
The claims lay dormant until being acquired by the American Smelting & Refining Co. (ASARCO), and in 1979 the company began mineral exploration. In 1999, after 20 years of almost continuous technical and legal problems, ASARCO sold its interests in the claims to Sterling Mining Company. Sterling subsequently changed its name to Revett Minerals in 2003. In 2015, Idaho-based Hecla Mining Co. acquired Revett Minerals and its Rock Creek mine claims
Whether it is ASARCO, Sterling Mining Co., Revett Minerals, or Hecla Mining that seeks to mine beneath the Cabinets, extreme impacts to wilderness, wildlife, and the region’s water will always be the price that would be paid.
Montana Supreme Court Decision
In December 2008, the Montana Supreme Court issued a decision pertaining to an appeal that our legal counsel filed in 2007. Attorneys for the Rock Creek Alliance and others argued that the wastewater discharge permit issued by Montana DEQ for the release of mine effluent into the Clark Fork River, violated the Montana Water Quality Act. The Court’s decision resulted in the revocation of the permit authorizing the discharge of 3,000,000 gallons per day of mine wastewater into the Clark Fork River. The Court also found that this discharge, because of its perpetual nature and need for long-term treatment, should be deemed “significant.” Under the Montana Water Quality Act, a significant discharge requires an in-depth analysis that evaluates the social, economic, and environmental aspects of the project.
Construction of the Exploration Adit
The Montana Supreme Court ruled that the Montana DEQ did not require the appropriate discharge permit when granting Revett approval of its plan to build an evaluation adit near Rock Creek. Under Revett’s plan, millions of tons of sediment would have been discharged into Rock Creek, seriously impairing it as spawning habitat. This ruling effectively sends Revett back to the drawing board on its construction phase. The company will need to go through the proper permitting channels and propose effective mitigation before beginning construction. The DEQ will have to review this new data and determine whether or not to permit the construction based on a more stringent standard.
Status of Lawsuits
Currently, there are three pending lawsuits filed on behalf of the Rock Creek Alliance and several other groups involved in litigation. A court hearing for our Montana state suit has not been scheduled. This suit deals with the introduction of sediment into Rock Creek from road construction associated with phase 1 of the mine and the impacts it would have on bull trout.
Our two lawsuits filed in federal district court also do not yet have a hearing scheduled. These cases challenge the Biological Opinion issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and approvals issued by the U.S. Forest Service to allow construction of the exploration adit.
Where Revett Stands in the Permitting Process
Revett has received conditional approvals from the U.S. Forest Service and Montana DEQ to begin construction of the evaluation adit (phase 1 of the mine). Prior to beginning construction on federal land, Revett must post a water treatment bond, construct a water treatment plant, complete mitigation activities required by the USWFS, and incorporate any revisions to its operating plan that the agencies may require. However, even if agency conditions are satisfied, Revett cannot proceed without court approval due to pending litigation. Our litigation in state court challenges the validity of the general construction permit issued by Montana that would allow construction activities to commence. Two of our lawsuits also challenge the legality of federal approvals including the biological opinion for bull trout and grizzly bears.
Full mine construction (phase II) would not begin until data obtained from phase 1 are analyzed to further assess the risks of metals leaching into the watershed, quantify the potential of acid-mine drainage, and further characterize other geochemical and hydrological risks from the mine.
If you’re interested in doing your own research on the Rock Creek Mine, the permitting process, and more, you’ve come to the right place. The following links will take you directly to PDFs and Web pages with every scrap of public information we could find.
Revett’s Evaluation Adit Plan
The Environmental Impact Statements
Record of Decision
FEIS AND MPDES Permit (2001)
Independent Environmental Review Documents
Comparison of Predicted and Actual Water Quality at Hardrock Mines
Predicting Water Quality Problems at Hardrock Mines
Myths About the Rock Creek Project
Technical Report on Underground Hardrock Mining: Subsidence and Hydrologic Environmental Impacts
USFWS Biological Opinion (2006)
Letter of Determination (2007)