Montana Court Strikes Down Water Pollution Permit for Montanore Mine, Protecting Clean Water and Native Fish


Permits for both of Hecla’s proposed mines in Montana’s Cabinet Mountains Wilderness have been ruled unlawful this year


Katherine O’Brien, Earthjustice, (406) 586-9699


Jim Jensen, Montana Environmental Information Center, (406) 443-2520


Bonnie Gestring, Earthworks, (406) 549-7361


Mary Crowe Costello, Save Our Cabinets, (208) 610-4896

A Montana District Court judge has invalidated the water permit for the Montanore Mine , a proposed silver-copper mine that would have bored beneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness in Montana. The permit issued by Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality would have allowed Hecla Mining Company and its subsidiary, Montanore Minerals Corporation, to discharge mine wastewater and contaminated storm water into multiple streams that traverse public lands in the Cabinet Mountains and provide irreplaceable habitat for threatened bull trout.

“Hecla’s proposal to mine under the Cabinet Mountains has always been a bad idea for Montana. This ruling protects clean water on public lands that belong to all of us,” said Earthjustice attorney Katherine O’Brien. “The decision from the court also sends a strong message that our state environmental agency cannot cut corners when it comes to permitting industrial pollution in our streams.”

The court’s ruling, issued in response to a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice on behalf of Montana Environmental Information Center, Save Our Cabinets, and Earthworks, concluded that Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality violated multiple provisions of the federal Clean Water Act and Montana Water Quality Act in authorizing water pollution from the mine. The court concluded that the state agency failed to establish essential pollution restrictions for numerous contaminants. The court also determined that the agency unlawfully relied on an outdated pollution authorization issued in 1992 to a different company for a different project to allow Hecla and its subsidiary to evade Montana’s legal protections for high-quality waters.

“This is a big win for clean water,” said Bonnie Gestring, Northwest Program Director for Earthworks.  “The court affirmed that Montanore cannot make use of a 27-year-old permit that would allow unnecessary pollution of Libby Creek, rather than complying with today’s laws to better protect Montana’s trout streams.”

A strong coalition in Montana is rising up to say “no” to mining giant Hecla’s plans to mine the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness.

“This decision protects streams that are fed by wilderness waters, which, by their very nature, are critical for our native trout,” said Mary Costello, executive director of Save Our Cabinets. “The decision also makes clear that mining companies are not free to pollute our rivers and streams with unchecked mining waste.”

“It is time for this project to just go away,” said Jim Jensen, executive director of Montana Environmental Information Center. “After 35 years no state administration or company has been able to protect water and wildlife in the Cabinet Mountains from this mine.”

The Montanore Mine, proposed for development south of Libby, Montana, would extract up to 20,000 tons of ore per day for up to twenty years. The project would generate up to 120 million tons of mining waste and pollute multiple streams designated as “high quality” waters under Montana law with copper, zinc, chromium, iron, manganese, ammonia, sediment, and nutrient pollutants that are harmful or toxic to aquatic life. 

In 2017, the U.S. District Court for Montana invalidated the federal permits for the Montanore Mine due to violations of the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, and other laws.

Katherine O’Brien / Earthjustice
The East Fork Bull River. If constructed, the Montanore Mine would drain water from this river, the area’s most important bull trout spawning stream.

The project’s state-issued operating permits are also being challenged in a pending lawsuit by Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality, which is suing to stop Hecla CEO Phillips S. Baker, Jr., from proceeding with the Montanore and nearby Rock Creek mine projects based on the agency’s determination that Baker is in violation of Montana’s “bad actor” mining law.

Baker formerly served as Vice President and CFO of Pegasus Gold Corporation, which operated and abandoned multiple cyanide heap-leach gold mines across Montana in the 1990s. The “bad actor” law prohibits mining executives whose companies default on their clean-up obligations from developing new mines in Montana.

In April, a Montana District Court judge ruled that a permit for Hecla’s other proposed mine that would harm wilderness waters and threatened wildlife in the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness — the Rock Creek Mine — is also invalid.

Montana's Cabinet Mountains Wilderness is one of the nation’s original wilderness areas.
Montana's Cabinet Mountains Wilderness is one of the nation’s original wilderness areas. (Eric Ian for Earthjustice)

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