Judge: State took permit ‘shortcut’ for Rock Creek Mine
Local court rules it was wrong to shortcut permitting for proposed Rock Creek Mine
Missoulian | Vince Devlin
July 23, 2011
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NOXON - A Helena district court judge has ruled that the state of Montana was wrong to take a "permitting shortcut" while allowing Revett Minerals to go ahead with construction of its proposed Rock Creek Mine beneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness near here.
Now, the Spokane company will have to obtain an individual discharge permit under the Montana Water Quality Act - which means a full opportunity for public review and input - before construction can begin.
"This decision is just common sense," said Karen Knudsen, executive director of the Clark Fork Coalition, which brought the lawsuit along with three other conservation groups.
"To approve a huge copper and silver mine in sensitive bull trout habitat under the same abbreviated permit process that applies when you build a house next to the interstate makes no sense at all," Knudsen continued. "Yet that's what the state tried to do here."
Bull trout are listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
Judge Kathy Seeley ruled that the large amount of sediment pollution the mine is expected to release into Rock Creek, a key spawning tributary for bull trout in the lower Clark Fork River, meant the state should not have permitted the mine under the generic "general permit" that covers ordinary construction, and excludes public comment.
John Shanahan, president of Revett Minerals, said he was disappointed in the ruling, but added: "We don't see it as a major setback. It's just a part of the process we are committed to going through. If that's what it takes, it's what it takes."
He said Revett Minerals would review Seeley's decision in more detail next week.
If approved, the Rock Creek Mine would be located north of Noxon, with an entrance near the wilderness boundary and shafts extending far beneath the protected lands.
In addition to the mine, it includes roads, rail stations, pipelines, power lines, a tailings treatment plant and other industrial infrastructure.
The mine has an expected lifespan of 35 years. It would employ approximately 300 people and, at full capacity, should produce an estimated 10,000 tons of copper and silver ore per day.
"These types of deposits can be developed in a responsible fashion," Shanahan said in a telephone interview from Toronto, where he reviewed Seeley's ruling on his Blackberry while waiting to catch a flight.
"We remain committed to doing the project to the highest possible standards," Shanahan said.
He called the nearby Troy Mine, also operated by Revett Minerals, "a showcase - one of the cleanest mines in North America - and I believe Rock Creek can be the same."
"I have the highest admiration for the work the Clark Fork Coalition does," Shanahan went on, "and believe we'll find a point where everybody is comfortable."
The lawsuit, one of several involving the proposed mine, was also brought by the Rock Creek Alliance, Earthworks and Trout Unlimited.
"The court validated our contention all along that Rock Creek is too important to dismiss," said Jim Costello, outreach director for the Rock Creek Alliance. "Too often, agency decisions that are clearly wrong are left standing because the assumption is made incorrectly that agencies know what's best and will do the right thing to protect public resources."
Seeley's ruling focused on predictions that the mine would put about 400 tons of sediment into Rock Creek every year.
Permitting studies indicate that would be a 38 percent increase in sediment pollution, and the Clark Fork Coalition says existing sediment levels are already so high that any increase would impair bull trout spawning.
Given that, the judge said, the state must instead prepare an ordinary water quality permit based on the specific conditions at the mine site, and give the public an opportunity to review and comment on it.