HELENA, MT—A coalition of conservation groups has objected to a mining company’s request for a state water right permit for the proposed Rock Creek Mine. If finalized, the permit would allow the mine to drain water from pristine streams in the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness and adjacent Kootenai National Forest—in some places making streams run dry.
The Rock Creek Mine, proposed by the Hecla Mining Company for development near Noxon, Mont., would extract 10,000 tons of copper and silver ore every day for up to 35 years in an area of undeveloped national forest land on the border of a federal wilderness. The mine would harm more than 7,000 acres of primarily public lands in and adjacent to the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness—including vital habitat for threatened populations of bull trout and grizzly bears.
Hecla proposes to tunnel beneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness to access underground ore deposits. That process would cause water from wilderness streams above to drain into the mine void, robbing water from bull trout and other native fish and transforming the wilderness landscape. Mining would permanently alter the groundwater system so that the substantial damage to nearby streams never could be undone. Hecla would use the water drawn from wilderness streams for ore-processing and other industrial operations, polluting the water and eventually discharging it into the Clark Fork River.
The coalition challenging the water right permit is represented by the non-profit environmental law firm Earthjustice and includes the Clark Fork Coalition, Rock Creek Alliance, Earthworks, and Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC). The groups last Friday filed a formal objection before the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation challenging DNRC’s proposed approval of a water right permit for the Rock Creek Mine.
“This permit would give the Rock Creek Mine a free pass to permanently damage wilderness streams that belong to all Montanans and provide cold, clean water for threatened bull trout and other native fish,” said Earthjustice attorney Katherine O’Brien. “Fortunately, Montana law protects our wilderness waters from the degradation the mine would inflict. By challenging DNRC’s proposed decision, we are seeking to hold the agency and the mine accountable to what the law requires.”
Mary Costello of the Rock Creek Alliance stated, “When Congress designated the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness in 1964, it was to protect not only the land, but the vast number of stunning alpine lakes and streams that can be found within its borders. To give our precious alpine waters to a mining company would be a travesty.”
“This permit would leave our native trout high and dry,” said Bonnie Gestring of Earthworks. “Not only is it unlawful, but it’s particularly inappropriate to drain wilderness streams that provide some of the last remaining refuge for bull trout, a threatened species.”
Karen Knudsen, executive director of the Clark Fork Coalition, said the permit highlights a big disconnect in how Montana manages and protects its water resources. “The way things are set up, DNRC handles water quantity and the Department of Environmental Quality handles water quality,” she said. “But this has created a scenario in which DNRC is giving the Rock Creek Mine the go-ahead for a water use that would dry up trout streams and violate the water quality laws DEQ is charged with enforcing. It’s time for the agencies to start talking to each other.”
State law gives interested members of the public the right to object to water right permits that would harm the public’s interest in the affected waters and violate legal requirements. In addition to arguing that the mine would unlawfully degrade wilderness streams, the coalition has pointed out that Hecla lacks authorization to mine from the U.S. Forest Service, which is required before DNRC can issue a water right.