Protecting the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness from large-scale mining
Mining company, Hecla, is proposing to develop two enormous copper/silver mines beneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness in the Kootenai National Forest of western Montana — one of the original ten areas protected by Congress under the Wilderness Act of 1964.
The Cabinet Mountains Wilderness protects a wild and remote corner of Montana, where a small population of grizzly bears and threatened bull trout find refuge. Even the loss of one bear, particularly a female bear, would have unacceptable consequences!
Despite the fact that these mines would tunnel beneath a wilderness area in the United States, the Forest Service claims that the General Mining Law of 1872 leaves them no choice but to issue a permit. Ore would be extracted by hollowing out giant underground rooms, leaving overlying wilderness lands held up by rock pillars. To keep the underground tunnels dry during mining, the groundwater table would be lowered, reducing flows in the overlying wilderness streams. Cumulatively, the proposed Rock Creek Mine and Montanore Mine (proposed on the east side of the Cabinets) are predicted to reduce flows in 26 miles of rivers and streams – critical habitat for imperiled bull trout.
“There hasn’t been a single hard rock mine in America developed, operated and reclaimed with the perfection needed to prevent the Rock Creek mine from fouling the Clark Fork River, threatening Lake Pend Oreille, and degrading the entire Congressionally designated wilderness area.”
— Montana Missoulian editorial
Hecla also plans to use a risky dam design to store the 100-million-tons of toxic mining waste (tailings), which it would leave permanently in an unlined pile covering 346 acres just 1/4 mile from the Clark Fork River.
If approved, these mines are predicted to:
- reduce flows in Wilderness streams for more than 1,000 years,
- industrialize critical habitat for a small population of threatened grizzly bears that find refuge in the region,
- put at risk the Clark Fork River by storing mine waste behind a risky, unlined tailings dam
- discharge polluted water for decades or centuries after the mine closes; the State of Montana says the pollution could continue forever.
“The community of Sandpoint has been consistently opposed to this mine, yet the federal government says its hands are tied by a law that predates Idaho Statehood. It’s just not right that our concerns about our community’s future don’t hold any weight.”
— Loren Albright, local contractor and Sandpoint native
In October 2017, Earthworks and our allies submitted an enforcement request to the State of Montana, asking it to enforce the “bad actor” provision in state law against Hecla’s CEO, Phillips S. Baker for failing to complete mine clean-up at his former company, Pegasus Gold. The “bad actor” provision prohibits mining executives from whose former companies failed to complete mine reclamation from undertaking new mining projects in the state.
In March 2018, the State of Montana took enforcement action – issuing violation letters to Hecla Mining Company and its CEO, advising them that they are in violation of Montana’s “bad actor” mining laws. Hecla’s CEO, Phillips S. Baker, served as a top official for Pegasus Gold when it declared bankruptcy in 1998, leaving behind several polluting mines, Zortman Landusky, Beal Mountain and Basin Creek. Montana has spent tens of millions in public funds to clean-up the toxic pollution at these mines, one of which will require water treatment in perpetuity.
Hecla has the option to repay the State of Montana, with interest, for the cost of clean-up, or “demonstrate that Phillips Baker, or any entities under his direction and control, will not conduction mining or exploration activities in Montana.”
In response, Hecla took legal action against the State. Earthworks and our conservation allies, have filed a motion to intervene in the case in support of the State. We are also joined by the Fort Belknap Tribes, who have been dealing with the pollution from the Zortman Landusky mine for decades.
The mine is widely opposed by neighboring communities. The Bonner County Commission and the City of Sandpoint have passed formal resolutions in opposition to the mine. Public officials, businesses and residents of the area have repeatedly advocated for reform of the 1872 Mining Law. Some 60 Idaho panhandle businesses, as well as county commissioners and city council members, oppose the mine.
Taking action to protect Montana’s water, wildlife and wilderness
On October, 2012, the Montana Supreme Court voided a key water quality permit for the proposed Rock Creek Mine, holding that the state’s use of a permitting shortcut would not sufficiently protect Rock Creek’s threatened bull trout population, a resource of “unique ecological significance” under state law.
On March 17, 2015, Earthworks petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to use its authority under the Endangered Species Act take a new look at the harmful effects that the project would inflict on imperiled bull trout and grizzly bears.
Earthworks, the Rock Creek Alliance, and other groups successfully challenged the permit for this mine in court. On May 5, 2010, the federal court tossed out the proposed Rock Creek mine permit, saying it fails to minimize impacts to water quality and fisheries. This is the third time that the court has ruled against this project.
In May 2017, the court overturned approval for the proposed Montanore Mine, finding that it would violate the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act.
Despite these important victories, our defense of the Cabinets Mountains Wilderness is not over. The company has said it will continue to pursue these mining projects and continue to submit revised plans.
With your support, we will continue our efforts to protect this important ecosystem.