Rock Creek Mine appeal denied - Environmental groups say they will sue in federal court

By JOHN STROMNES of the Missoulian


Libby, MT - Before it can mine copper and silver under the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, Sterling Mining Co.'s Rock Creek project near Noxon must get through federal court.

The regional office of the U.S. Forest Service in Missoula has denied an appeal from a coalition of seven environmental groups and a separate appeal by a Libby woman challenging the Kootenai National Forest's approval last June of an operating plan for the vast silver and copper mine near Noxon.

Coalition appellants said Tuesday that Forest Service's Deputy Regional Forester Kathleen A. McAllister, who reviewed the appeal and recommended denial, did a thorough job in responding to the numerous technical and legal objections they raised to the mining plan.

"I find the Forest Supervisor has made a reasoned decision and has complied with all laws, regulations, and policy," McAllister informed the appellants.

But she still got it wrong, the environmentalists said. The mine should never be built and the coalition will sue in federal court to stop the mining project and protect the public, representatives of the groups said Tuesday.

"The Forest Service is still allowing a mine in a place that ought not to have a mine, especially a mine proposed by people with a track record of Sterling Mining Co.," said Tracy Stone-Manning of the Clark Fork Coalition in Missoula.

A spokeswoman for Sterling, Heather Ennis, said the company is pleased with the decision denying the appeals. She said no on-ground work could begin until extensive mitigation requirements are met.

Ennis said further comment on the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness mine would have to come from Sterling Mining Co. President Frank Duval of Spokane, who could not be reached. He told the New York Times recently, however, that the mining project is economical to build under current market conditions.

In Sandpoint, Idaho, a few miles downstream from the proposed mine, elected officials from the county and city governments and representatives of the business community have joined with environmental groups such as the Rock Creek Alliance in Sandpoint and the Cabinet Resources Group in Noxon - both part of the coalition appealing the record of decision allowing the mine.

"Once again (Forest Service officials) are turning a deaf ear to the concerns of the community - the risks to our clean water and our economy," said Mary Mitchell of the Rock Creek Alliance.

Others participating in the appeal by environmental groups are the Mineral Policy Center, Sierra Club, Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Montana Wilderness Association. They are assisted by two law firms.

The seven environmental groups will now sue in hopes a federal judge - probably U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy of Missoula - will trump McAllister, and order the mining plan back to the drawing board because of its alleged danger to water and air quality, wilderness and wildlife.

Another separate appeal was also denied by McAllister. This appeal was made by an individual, Barbara Dutro of Libby. She could not be reached Tuesday to see if she plans to sue.

In general terms, both appeals asserted that the environmental impact statement and the record of decision approving the mining plan did not meet various environmental laws and failed to comply with the Kootenai forest plan to protect air, wildlife, water and wilderness.

Dutro's appeals were particularly concerned with wilderness values and wildlife, such as the bald eagle - a species not mentioned in the coalition's appeal. The threat to the small population of grizzlies that still survive in the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem was a prominent part of both appeals.

McAllister said Dutro's objections were either without merit or the analysis and decision of the Forest Service adequately addressed the issues she raised.

In denying the environmental coalition's appeal, McAllister rebutted the issues point-by-point.

McAllister was aided by a team of specialists made up of wildlife biologists, fishery biologists, geologists and specialists in environmental law. The team determined that the coalition appeal "did not bring forth substantial evidence to require that the decision be withdrawn or turned back to the Kootenai (National Forest) for further study," according to a press release issued by the Kootenai forest.

Kootenai Forest Supervisor Bob Castaneda said he felt vindicated.

"This comprehensive regional review and the Regional Forester's decision on the appeals confirms the quality of the past 16 years of study, review and analysis of the mining proposal by the Forest Service and Montana Department of Environmental Quality."

The state has already been sued by the environmental coalition for its approval of the mining plan. The suit is still being litigated in Helena, with no trial date in sight.

Castaneda said he was confident that the decision will survive the promised federal litigation "and will be shown that it meets all applicable laws and regulations."

The company wants to extract 10,000 tons of copper and silver daily for 30 to 35 years from under the wilderness area. The mine would employ 355 people.

It was first proposed by Asarco Inc. in 1987, which eventually sold its interest to Sterling.

Environmental groups have opposed the mine during the entire permitting process, saying it would jeopardize grizzly bears, lynx, harlequin ducks and bull trout, and pollute the waters of Rock Creek, the Clark Fork River, and Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho.


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