By Cameron Rasmusson
A Montana District Court judge revoked a state water use permit for the proposed Rock Creek Mine this week in a decision conservationists are hailing as a victory.
The latest development in a decades-long battle over the proposed mine, the decision puts yet another roadblock in front of the project. While mine supporters argue it will bring good jobs to rural western Montana, opponents say the operation will deal lasting damage to Montana and Idaho waterways.
“The Court’s ruling safeguards some of the purest waters in the lower-48 from the destructive impacts threatened by the Rock Creek Mine,” said Earthjustice attorney Katherine O’Brien in a statement. “The ruling also affirms that the state’s job is to protect Montana’s waters for the benefit of all Montanans—not to give those waters away to corporate interests without taking a hard look at the impacts.”
In the ruling, Judge Kathy Seeley determined that Montana’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation did not adequately consider potential damage the mine would deal to local waters.
“When Congress designated the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, it did so to protect the abundance of unspoiled streams and lakes that make this temperate rainforest so unique,” said Mary Costello, executive director of the Rock Creek Alliance. “The state court’s decision affirms the need to protect wilderness waters from an industrial use that would permanently diminish and degrade them.”
Proposed by Hecla Mining Company for development near Noxon, Mont., the mine would drain water from wilderness streams in the effort to extract 10,000 tons per day from an underground ore deposit. With the court reversing the decision to permit that water usage, it’s back in the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s hands to conduct a new evaluation.
The agency, meanwhile, intends to appeal the court decision. And Hecla officials will move forward with an exploratory project at the mine site, believing the revoked permit won’t impact operations.
The setback comes on the heels of a separate legal challenge from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. The lawsuit alleges that Hecla CEO Phillips Baker Jr. should be barred from conducting any mining projects due to his previous role as vice president and CFO of Pegasus Gold Corporation. The company left the state holding the bill for a massive environmental cleanup after going bankrupt and leaving several cyanide-infested mines in its wake. State officials argue that under Montana bad actor laws, which bar individuals who renege on their clean-up responsibilities from business in the state, Hecla must either compensate the state for $35 million in environmental costs or proceed in its mining plans with Baker’s involvement.
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