Fourteen years after the original permit application for the Rock Creek Mine outside of Noxon was submitted, the Kootenai National Forest and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality have issued the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) on the project, giving the mining company conditional approval to proceed.
The FEIS represents the near-culmination of a permitting process that has been dogged for years by controversy and a multi-pronged resistance from a number of area environmental groups. Now in the hands of the Veradale, Wash.-based Sterling Mining Company, which in 1999 bought the rights to the project from ASARCO, along with the currently inactive Troy mine, the Rock Creek mine would bore a number of tunnels, or adits, through the Cabinet Mountains. The adits would be roughly 18 by 25 feet, and would end in the huge underground caverns created by the “room-and-pillar” mining process. The Revett Formation, the target of the project, contains an estimated 136 million-ton strata-bound deposit that holds upwards of 300 million ounces of silver and two billion pounds of copper.
The environmental organizations that oppose the project, led by the Sandpoint, Idaho-based Rock Creek Alliance, and including such diverse groups as the Clark Fork Coalition, Trout Unlimited and the Mineral Policy Center, argue that the damage wrought by the mine to water quality and two endangered species would be devastating. In addition to the unlined tailings pile outlined in the project–a 335-acre site within a third of a mile of both Rock Creek and the Clark Fork River above Lake Pend Oreille–mining activity would almost surely wipe out the remaining grizzly bear population in the Cabinets and the bull trout population in Rock Creek, environmental groups say.
Despite the favorable ruling for Sterling, though, Chairman and CEO Frank Duval doesn’t believe there will be any mining activity on the site for quite some time.
“It’s nice to get the EIS out of the way,” says Duval, “but unfortunately it comes at a time of year when we’re unable to start large projects.”
Duval also recognizes that the opposition groups will very likely try to block the project through legal action, though he says, “With the environmental community being so concerned about the project, we feel that the agencies involved have done a very thorough job” in the permitting process.
Regardless of what legal challenges arise, it may well be three to four years before the initial evaluation adit for the project is dug. “There’s so much uncertainty in the process from here,” says Duval. “I have no idea when work will actually begin.”