Joint release: Clark Fork Coalition * Earthworks * Rock Creek Alliance * Trout Unlimited
July 22nd — On Thursday, a Montana state court blocked construction of Revett Mineral's proposed Rock Creek Mine beneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness in northwestern Montana, ruling that the state improperly relied on a permitting shortcut under the Montana Water Quality Act.
The ruling was the latest in a series of legal setbacks for the controversial copper and silver mine. The courts have repeatedly found the mine plan to be in violation of state and federal laws that protect clean water, fish and wildlife, and public health, resulting in the loss of several key state and federal permits.
Thursday's decision by Helena district court judge Kathy Seeley focused on the large amounts of sediment that mine construction would release into Rock Creek, a key spawning tributary for bull trout in the lower Clark Fork River. Permitting studies for the mine showed that construction would cause a 38% increase in sediment pollution to Rock Creek, where existing sediment levels are already so high that any increase would impair bull trout spawning. Judge Seeley held that under these conditions, the state was wrong to permit the mine under the generic “general permit” that covers ordinary construction activities across the state and excludes public comment, and instead must prepare an ordinary water quality permit based on the specific conditions at the mine site, and allow for public review.
“This decision is just common sense,” said Karen Knudsen, executive director of the Clark Fork Coalition, which brought the suit along with the Rock Creek Alliance, the Clark Fork Coalition, Earthworks, and Trout Unlimited. “To approve a huge copper and silver mine in sensitive bull trout habitat under the same abbreviated permit process that applies when you build a house next to the interstate makes no sense at all. Yet that's what the state tried to do here.”
Jim Costello, outreach director for the Rock Creek Alliance, was gratified that the court stated that it would not defer to an agency decision that it finds incorrect. “The court validated our contention all along that Rock Creek is too important to dismiss. Too often, agency decisions that are clearly wrong are left standing because the assumption is made incorrectly that agencies know what's best and will do the right thing to protect public resources.”
Biologists for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks have identified Rock Creek as a crucial tributary for the recovery of bull trout in the lower Clark Fork River. These concerns were the basis for Judge Seeley's determination that Rock Creek is an area of “unique ecological significance” under Montana law.
“We're heartened by the court's decision to recognize Rock Creek's importance as a bull trout stronghold, and require that the public have a voice in the permitting process, when such an important resource is at risk,” said Bonnie Gestring of Earthworks.
As a result of Thursday's ruling, Revett will not be able to build the mine until it obtains an individual discharge permit under the Montana Water Quality Act, with a full opportunity for public review and input. 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.