State and federal agencies today approved the Montanore copper-silver mine proposed underneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness in northwest Montana’s Kootenai National Forest. The mine project, planned by Mines Management Inc., will disturb more than 1,500 acres adjacent to the Wilderness and remove up to 120 million tons of ore from tunnels that extend underneath it. Despite the Montana Department of Environmental Quality’s Record of Decision admitting that the full mine project will violate state water quality law, the Forest Service has nevertheless approved the full mine.
The proposed Montanore Mine would transform the pristine landscape of Cabinet Mountains Wilderness into a large-scale industrial mining site.
“Two scientific studies show that the mine will irrevocably harm Wilderness rivers and streams that provide refuge for native fish and wildlife, and provide cold, clean water to downstream communities,” said Bonnie Gestring of Earthworks.
“Based on the mining company’s own study, the Montanore mine shouldn’t be built because it conflicts with state law to protect outstanding resource waters.”
In the final Environmental Impact Statement, released in December, the mining company’s own consultants predict the mine will diminish flows in the overlying Wilderness rivers and streams for an estimated 1,200–1,300 years, including depleted flows in East Fork Rock Creek, Rock Creek, and the East Fork Bull River on the west side of the Cabinet Mountains, and Ramsey Creek, Libby Creek and Poorman Creek on the east side of the Cabinet Mountains. Pollution from the mine also threatens to wipe out vital populations of bull trout, a threatened species protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The massive mine development places the Cabinet Mountains’ struggling grizzly bear population—also protected by the ESA—at risk of extinction.
“It is irresponsible of Montana’s regulators to permit the Montanore mine when they know it will divert this region’s precious groundwater, dewatering wilderness lakes and streams in the process,” said Mary Costello of Save Our Cabinets, a local non-profit organization.
“Montana’s decision admits that the planned mine would violate state water quality laws, but the Forest Service recklessly approved the full mine anyway. Once the company starts excavation and has inflicted the damage, there is no going back and fixing the problem. No amount of study is going to change that.”
Karen Knudsen, executive director of the Clark Fork Coalition, said the decision to permit Montanore is worrisome, “When it comes to mining in Montana, it’s important to get the full picture of the potential for long-lasting, cumulative damage to vital creeks and streams.
“The cumulative impact of two mines in this wilderness area—Montanore and the nearby Rock Creek Mine—is the elephant in the room, but no one at DEQ and the Forest Service seem to want to address it,” she added.
The Montanore Project is already subject to litigation. Save Our Cabinets, Earthworks and Defenders of Wildlife, represented by the non-profit environmental law firm Earthjustice, filed a lawsuit against the Montanore Project in July 2015 for the mine’s impacts on threatened grizzly bears and bull trout.
“Every analysis of the Montanore Mine has shown that it will inflict irreversible damage on the Cabinet Mountains, one of the last remaining refuges for threatened bull trout and grizzly bears in our region,” said Earthjustice attorney Katherine O’Brien.
“Our state and federal agencies’ disregard of that evidence and insistence on pushing through the mine approval, whatever the cost, is irresponsible and unlawful.”
“The agencies are sacrificing essential habitat for threatened bull trout and grizzly bears and wasting the substantial resources that have been invested to help grizzlies retain a critical foothold in the Cabinet Mountains,” said McCrystie Adams, Senior Staff Attorney for Defenders of Wildlife.
“Bull trout and grizzly bears’ recovery here will be seriously jeopardized by the transformation of their habitat into a massive industrial mine site.”