Conservationists: Cabinet Mountains Wilderness values threatened by mining

Missoulian | Mitch Landers

November 27, 2014
Read this article on the publishing site

Hiking the four-mile trail into Rock Lake from the Noxon area weighed heavy on Jim Costello, especially after he met a budding family from Spokane.

The couple was packing a toddler along the soothing rumble of Rock Creek for his first wilderness experience.

He asked Jim and JoJo Lindenfelser if they'd heard of the Rock Creek Mine. They said no. He suggested they check into it.

"Have a good day," said Costello, who with his wife, Mary Crowe Costello, form the foundation of the Rock Creek Alliance and

"This is the most popular route into the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness," he said later, "yet most people have no idea they could soon be driving past a huge mining operation to get here. They don't know about the noise, or that the creek could be dry and the lake could be much lower."

The Cabinet Mountains have a long history as a national model for preservation.

The northwestern Montana range was designated by the U.S. Forest Service as an official "primitive area" in 1935. Congress included the range among the country's first 10 areas officially protected by the Wilderness Act of 1964.

More recently, the mountains between the Kootenai and Clark Fork rivers have become a showcase for wilderness desecration allowed under the General Mining Act of 1872, Costello said.

Even the bull trout and grizzly bears protected by the Endangered Species Act of 1973 are being undercut by two proposed mining projects involving the wilderness.


The Kootenai National Forest and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality are preparing to release decisions on a proposal for the Montanore Mine near Libby, plus a separate decision on the Rock Creek Mine near Noxon.

The mines, both owned by Spokane-based companies, seek to bore tunnels from outside the wilderness boundaries to reach silver and copper deposits underneath the protected federal land.

But watchdog groups cite details in the draft environmental impact statements that indicate the mines will violate wilderness protections as well as other federal and state laws.

"What distinguishes these mining proposals from other cases I've seen are the dewatering effects inside the wilderness," said Bonnie Gestring of Earthworks, a nonprofit environmental group that focuses on mineral and energy development.

"Both mines will be essentially accessing the same ore body from opposite sides of the wilderness. Groundwater would have to be pumped out of the underground tunnels, lowering the water table by up to 1,000 feet."

The 2001 Rock Creek Environmental Impact Statement estimates that about 2,000 gallons per minute of groundwater will have to be pumped out of the mine cavity. Montanore documents estimate inflows of 500 gpm.

Several alpine lakes dependent on groundwater recharge would be affected, including Rock and St. Paul lakes for sure, and likely Cliff Lake, she said.

"East Fork Rock Creek's headwaters would go dry and the draft EIS predicts significant dewatering of East Fork Bull River," she said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion says the creeks will suffer long-term impacts to bull trout, which were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1998.

But the federal agencies say the dewatering would be acceptable because it wouldn't impact the overall existence of the species, she said.

On the other hand, an angler with a single bull trout in his creel in those same waters could be fined up to $1,000 if caught by a game warden.

"These streams are already designated as outstanding resource waters," Gestring said. "We believe the reduction in flows within the wilderness is a violation of the nondegredation provision of Montana state law, which is intended to protect those outstanding waters."


The 2013 Montana Legislature approved a bill that would have exempted the Cabinets-area mines from provisions of laws protecting the state's "outstanding resource waters."

"Gov. (Steve) Bullock vetoed the bill, but we expect it will be brought up again," Mary Crowe Costello said.

The mines would have huge economic impacts to the region, where they have overwhelming support in perpetually depressed Lincoln and Sanders counties.

Glenn Dobbs, Montanore Mine president, says the company could employ up to 350 people. The Montanore would be situated 16 miles south of Libby and operate at least 15 years, company documents say.

Revett Mining Co. says the Rock Creek mine near Noxon could employ even more workers and operate up to 35 years.

In addition, the Troy Mine operated by Revett west of Bull Lake has reopened this fall after a series of underground rockslides forced its closure in 2012. Revett officials say up to 95 workers could be on the job by the end of the year and up to 175 in mid-2015.

Factoring in the worker families and support, the three mines could increase the area's population by 3,000 to 4,000 people.

Metals pollution and sediment issues concern environmental groups, especially in Rock Creek and ultimately the Clark Fork River on the west side of the Cabinets. Some of the pollution and other water issues would be permanent, agency documents say.

No agency seems to be addressing the provisions in the Wilderness Act that protect resources within wilderness boundaries, Costello said.

"The Cabinet Wilderness is just 4 percent of the 2.2 million-acre Kootenai National Forest," Gestring said. "We think it's perfectly reasonable to protect 94,272 acres of the forest for the next generations to enjoy."


The Cabinet Mountains Wilderness is a 35-mile island of glaciated peaks and valleys flanked by U.S. Highway 2 and Libby to the northeast and Montana Highway 200 and Noxon on the southwest.

The name stems from early French explorers who noted rock formations along the Clark Fork River looked like boxes or cabinets. Most of the outcroppings have been inundated behind Cabinet Gorge Dam, completed in 1952.

Wilderness elevations are as low as 2,880 feet at the base of Grambauer Mountain, in valleys holding moose and ancient cedars. The mountains gain elevation past remnant glaciers to the haunts of mountain goats and ultimately to the summit of Snowshoe Peak at 8,738 feet.

Within the boundaries are about 80 mountain lakes and 94 miles of designated trails.

Mining has occurred in the Cabinets sporadically since the early 1900s, especially along the Snowshoe Fault in the southeast portion of the range.

Rock Creek Trail 935 passes the Heidelberg Mine that operated on a small scale from the 1920s into the '70s.

The equipment that would be put to work on the proposed modern mines would have exponentially more impact.

"The Rock Creek Mine alone would discharge up to 3 million gallons of wastewater per day containing heavy metals and nutrient pollution into the lower Clark Fork River," Crowe Costello said. "Revett also plans to store the 100 million tons of toxic mining waste permanently in a pile covering 346 acres just a quarter-mile from the Clark Fork River."

Even people who try to hike beyond the mining activity would be impacted, she said, noting that noise from machinery would be audible in portions of the wilderness between Elephant and Ojibway peaks and industrial lighting would be intrusive.

Crowe Costello pulls no punches in her criticism of agency biological opinions for the Rock Creek and Montanore mines.

"They're horrible," she said. "For some reason, the FWS won't take a stand for bull trout. It was a different story during the relicensing for lower Clark Fork River dams. Avista was required to pour tons of money into stream restoration and the FWS was hammering Avista on fish passage at Cabinet Gorge Dam because of impacts to bull trout.

"Yet FWS says it's OK for Montanore to dewater bull trout streams."

Rock Creek Alliance lawyers weighing in on the proposals have cited the Clean Water Act and Montana state law, which tend to give them more traction in the courts than the Wilderness Act, Costello said.

Environmental groups won a 2011 case in the Montana Supreme Court that required the state to do more analysis.

The Forest Service hasn't yet addressed the cumulative impacts, raising more concerns.

However, the politics are so volatile, even the Montana Wilderness Association would not comment on the Cabinets mining issues. "We're waiting for the final documents to come out," said Gabriel Furshong, MWA program director.

Lynn Hagarty, the project leader for the Forest Service in Libby, said it was prudent for the agencies to be meticulous in preparing the documents to head off possible appeals. "Shortcuts will not lead to a successful defense of a very complex decision that involves a wide range of environmental concerns and issues," she told the Flathead Beacon.

Hagarty responded to the Spokesman-Review with an email declining to respond to a list of questions emailed to her.

Brian Peck, a consultant who prepared responses to the mine proposals for the Natural Resources Defense Council, suggests the route to avoiding lawsuits isn't to submit to political pressure.

"I tell them, 'Follow the science; obey the law' – that's the way to litigation-proof decisions," he said.

Tagged with: mining, cabinet mountains, cabinet mountain wilderness

On Twitter

#Mining proposal threatens #Arizona town's #water supply @highcountrynews @tory_sarah
#Mining the deep sea could destroy an alien world we barely know @onEarthMag

On Facebook