Ready and Waiting
CEO Glenn Dobbs said work could begin inside the Montanore Mine in 2013, but critics worry about the surrounding wilderness
February 15, 2013
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LIBBY – More than 7,000 feet from the mine’s portal, Glenn Dobbs stands inside the dark tunnel and reflects on the last eight years – reflecting on a project, the Montanore Mine, that he says is ready to go.
But even with all the delays and frustration above ground, down here Dobbs only sees possibility.
“I can visualize 180 guys down here, busy like an ant farm,” Dobbs said last week. “It’s really exciting to imagine.”
In 2005, Mines Management, Inc., the parent company of Montanore Minerals Corp., submitted a hard rock mining application to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and proposed a plan of operations to the Kootenai National Forest. Dobbs, CEO of Mines Management, hoped the environmental impact study and subsequent approvals would take about two years.
“And we’ve been at it ever since,” he said.
Now, Dobbs says the end of the permitting process is in sight and work could begin inside the mine’s exploratory adit, located 16 miles south of Libby, before the year is out. Company officials say it would take four to five years to develop and construct the mine, which could annually produce 7 million ounces of silver and 60 million pounds of copper. Dobbs predicts that when it’s fully operational, the mine could employ 350 people. That would be a welcomed boost to Lincoln County, an area plagued with the highest unemployment in the state.
But environmental advocates worry about the long-term effects of a mine located directly underneath the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness. Even some locals in Libby, a town with a complex mining history, wonder how the Montanore project could change the area.
“Look at this street and count how many empty buildings there are,” Sheri Brookshire said last week at Cardinal True Value Hardware on Mineral Avenue.
The empty storefronts in downtown Libby provide a grim picture of what the last 20 years have done to the town. When Brookshire began working at the hardware store 22 years ago, there were 13 employees; today there are only five. The store was so busy back then that it had to expand into another storefront, on the other side of a bar.
“I could stand at that cash register and not move all day,” said Brookshire, who is now the general manager.
In 1990, the W.R. Grace and Company closed its vermiculite mine. Later it was discovered that the asbestos produced from the mine had sickened thousands. Then in 2003, Stimson Lumber, Co. closed its mill in Libby, which employed almost 300 people. In December 2012, the unemployment rate in Lincoln County was 14.8 percent.
Mayor Doug Roll said the Montanore Mine could help the struggling economy, which is why he is a supporter of the project. According to Mines Management, 500 to 600 people would be employed during construction.
“There is no doubt about it, (the mine) would be an economic boon for the city of Libby,” Roll said.
Brookshire also supports it. She has a yellow sign in her storefront window that reads “We Support Montanore. Do You?” Along with signs supporting the local high school teams, the cardboard Montanore posters are popular at area businesses.
Indeed, there would be a lot more customers walking through the door if the mine opened. Brookshire says the only reason her store hasn’t closed is because “crap breaks.”
“The town wants it; I mean we have no industry and no jobs here,” she said.
Dobbs, who has worked in the mining industry since the 1970s, says Libby needs the mine and that there is “almost universal support,” at least locally.
Almost. Jim Costello is a member of Save Our Cabinets, a spinoff of the Rock Creek Alliance, an environmental group raising awareness about mining in the area, including Revett Minerals’ proposed Rock Creek Mine. Costello lives in nearby Sanders County and understands the region’s economic struggles but says a large mine could change the Cabinet Mountains for decades. He is especially worried about water.
“To just accept the environmental impacts as the price of doing business is unacceptable,” he said. “If it can’t be done right, then it shouldn’t be done at all.”
Costello said a large mining operation could dewater the headwaters of creeks, including Rock Creek and East Fork of the Bull River. He is also concerned about what would happen to the groundwater after the mine closes. Bonnie Gestring of Earthworks in Missoula agrees and said the mine would have “serious impacts, and lasting consequences” for the pristine Cabinet Mountain Wilderness.
But Eric Klepfer, a mine consultant working on the Montanore project, says Costello’s concerns are based on a conservative hydrology model and that some streams and rivers dewater naturally, depending on the season. Klepfer also said once the company begins to develop the mine, it could make adjustments to the hydrology models.
All of that will be disclosed in an extensive environmental impact statement due out this year. DEQ project coordinator Kristi Ponozzo and the U.S. Forest Service’s Lynn Hagarty have studied the mine’s potential effect on water, land and animals. The study includes input from various state and federal agencies and a draft version was released in 2009, followed by a supplemental draft in 2011. Dobbs is frustrated with how long it has taken to complete the assessment.
“This is clearly the most studied mine project in North America today,” he said. “We have data going back to 1988.”
Exploration for copper and silver deposits under the Cabinet Mountains began in the early 1980s by U.S. Borax, which leased a mining claim from the Heidelberg Silver Mining, Co. With an estimated 230 million ounces of silver and nearly 2 billion pounds of copper, it is one of the world’s largest deposits. In the late 1980s, Canadian-based Noranda Minerals Corp. purchased the claims and began to develop the site and seek mining permits. Noranda constructed a 14,000-foot exploration shaft, just outside of the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness.
Noranda stopped working on the project in 1991 because of weak mineral prices and blasting was releasing nitrates into Libby Creek. Although development stopped, the company continued to work on permitting the project. In 1995, the company closed the site and in 2002 abandoned the project, despite spending more than $100 million. Some of the state and federal permits expired that year as well. Mining claims reverted back to Heidelberg, which had since merged with Mines Management, based in Spokane.
In the mid-2000s, copper and silver prices began rebounding and Mines Management began to explore the project again with a wholly owned subsidiary, Montanore Minerals. In 2005, the company applied for new permits and to update existing ones. The Forest Service and DEQ started work on another environmental impact statement and a final version has yet to be released.
“This can be very frustrating, as you can imagine, because all the while, the company has been spending money,” Dobbs said, adding that his company has spent almost $50 million on the project.
But Ponozzo and Hagarty say it’s a complex project and cannot be rushed. Hagarty also said the agencies want to make sure the permits can withstand litigation.
“Shortcuts will not lead to a successful defense of a very complex decision that involves a wide range of environmental concerns and issues,” Hagarty wrote in an email to the Beacon.
Costello said his group will be watching for the final impact statement and hasn’t ruled out legal action. He said all of the information used by the government needs to be made available to the public.
“No one is asking our opinion and the only way we can have our voice heard is through public comment and legal action,” he said. “We don’t have a seat at the table.”
Costello said although opposition to the mine has been quiet in Libby, he believes people are aware of the potential environmental impacts. Even Brookshire says she worries about water quality and public health, especially after what Libby has gone through with W.R. Grace. However, she believes the mine would be a good thing for the community.
Einard Mattila, a sales associate at the store, agrees. He has lived in Libby for 40 years and has seen the local economy’s downward “spiral.”
“(The mine) will bring jobs here, that’ll bring families back and that has to be a good thing,” he said. “We’ve been through so much with the asbestos thing and so I don’t think anyone would turn a blind eye to the environment.”
This winter, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is preparing a terrestrial and fisheries biological opinion that could be finalized in the coming weeks and months, according to Ponozzo. Those assessments will be included in the final environmental study, to be released this fall, followed by a record of decision at the end of the year.
Dobbs believes the end is finally in sight. Once the record of decision is made and permits are issued, he says work could start inside the mine before the year is out.
“It will happen this year,” he said. “We have answered all of the questions that could be raised about this project.”
If that happens, the remote mine site near Libby Creek could soon become a busy place, with pumping operations beginning in earnest to clear the 14,000-foot mine adit of water. When Noranda abandoned the project and closed the shaft, it filled with groundwater and the lower 7,000 feet is still flooded. Once the shaft is clear, miners and contractors will start to extend the shaft by 3,000 feet to reach the copper and silver ore body. Work will also begin above ground on the processor.
Once permitted, full production could start in four to five years. Dobbs said the mine has an expected lifespan of 15 years, but additional exploration and development could extend that to 20 years.
“This project is going to be permitted, this project is going to be built and it will be mined,” he said.
Driving slowly down the 18-by-18 foot tunnel, Dobbs talks about all the things that need to be completed in the coming months and years. At 69 years old, he says he hopes he lives long enough to see the mine in full production.
After awhile, the car is parked and the group gets out on foot. At 7,100 feet from the surface, the Montanore Mine is silent.
“Every time I come down here, I feel a sense of urgency. Here it is, ready and waiting,” Dobbs said, standing in the dark. “Let’s get it going.”