Cabinet Mountains Wilderness
United States | Montana-Idaho | Sandpoint : Rock Creek Mine
The Rock Creek Mine Proposal
Mining company, Hecla, is proposing to develop an enormous copper/silver mine beneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness in Kootenai National Forest of western Montana -- one of the original ten areas protected by Congress under the Wilderness Act of 1964.
Despite the fact that the mine would tunnel beneath a wilderness area in the United States, the Forest Service claims that the General Mining Law of 1872 leaves them no choice but to permit the mine. Ore would be extracted by hollowing out giant underground rooms, leaving overlying wilderness lands held up by rock pillars. To keep the underground tunnels dry during mining, the groundwater table would be lowered, reducing flows in the overlying wilderness streams that rely on groundwater for a portion of their flows. Cumulatively, the proposed Rock Creek Mine and Montanore Mine (proposed on the east side of the Cabinets) are predicted to reduce flows in 26 miles of rivers and streams.
"There hasn't been a single hard rock mine in America developed, operated and reclaimed with the perfection needed to prevent the Rock Creek mine from fouling the Clark Fork River, threatening Lake Pend Oreille, and degrading the entire Congressionally designated wilderness area."
--- Montana Missoulian editorial
Hecla also plans to use a risky dam design to store the 100-million-tons of toxic mining waste (tailings), which it would leave permanently in an unlined pile covering 346 acres just 1/4 mile from the Clark Fork River.
If it is approved, the Rock Creek Mine is predicted to:
- dewater Wilderness streams designated as Outstanding Resource Waters,
- jeopardize threatened fish and wildlife that find refuge in the region,
- put at risk the Cleark Fork River by storing mine waste behind a risky, unlined tailings dam
- discharge polluted water for decades or centuries after the mine closes; the State of Montana says the pollution could continue forever.
"The community of Sandpoint has been consistently opposed to this mine, yet the federal government says its hands are tied by a law that predates Idaho Statehood. It's just not right that our concerns about our community's future don't hold any weight."
-- Loren Albright, local contractor and Sandpoint native
The mine is widely opposed by neighboring communities. The Bonner County Commission and the City of Sandpoint have passed formal resolutions in opposition to the mine. Public officials, businesses and residents of the area have repeatedly advocated for reform of the 1872 Mining Law. Some 60 Idaho panhandle businesses, as well as county commissioners and city council members, oppose the mine.
Taking action to protect Montana's water, wildlife and wilderness
On October, 2012, the Montana Supreme Court voided a key water quality permit for the proposed Rock Creek Mine, holding that the state’s use of a permitting shortcut would not sufficiently protect Rock Creek’s threatened bull trout population, a resource of “unique ecological significance” under state law.
On March 17, 2015, Earthworks petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to use its authority under the Endangered Species Act take a new look at the harmful effects that the project would inflict on imperiled bull trout and grizzly bears.
Earthworks, the Rock Creek Alliance, and other groups successfully challenged the permit for this mine in court. On May 5, 2010, the federal court tossed out the mine permit, saying it fails to minimize impacts to water quality and fisheries. This is the third time that the court has ruled against this project.
The mine submitted a revised plan in 2016, which was released for public comment in February 2016. Once again, we have joined with our partners in the region to submit extensive comments on the proposed project, which continues to threaten Wilderness, Oustanding Resource Waters and threatened wildlife.
With your support, we will continue our efforts to protect this important ecosystem.
For more information:
- Ann Maest, Buka Environmental: Myths about the Rock Creek Project. Fact sheet.
- Earthworks: 1872 Mining Law
- Earthworks Comments on proposed Rock Creek mine DEIS
- Kootenai National Forest: Cabinet Mountains Wilderness
- Kootenai National Forest: Rock Mine Proposal
- Rock Creek Alliance