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Judge strikes down initial approval for stalled Montana mine

April 14, 2021 GMT

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A U.S. judge on Wednesday struck down the government’s approval of the first phase of a long-stalled copper and silver mine that would be constructed beneath a northwestern Montana wilderness.

The decision against the Rock Creek Mine near Noxon is the latest in series of legal setbacks for a project first proposed in the late 1980s.

U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy sided with opponents who said an environmental review by federal officials was insufficient because it considered only exploration work and not full-scale mining.

Rock Creek is one of two mines proposed by Idaho-based Hecla Mining Company that would tunnel beneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, an area rich with wildlife including trout, grizzly bears and wolverines.

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Sporadic mining has occurred in the area since the early 1800s, according to the U.S. Forest Service. But there are worries the large-scale projects proposed by Hecla could drain groundwater supplies, damaging the habitat of federally-protected bull trout.

The Cabinet Mountains Wilderness is protected under federal law, but mining is allowed on existing mining claims.

Kootenai National Forest officials in 2019 approved plans for Hecla to begin exploration work after conducting a review in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The company did not immediately proceed because of court challenges.

Hecla Vice President Luke Russell said the company was reviewing Molly’s ruling and has not decided if it will appeal.

“We were disappointed and surprised,” Russell said. “We thought the agencies had done the right thing here.”

A representative of one of the groups that sued over the project said the government’s decision to limit the scope of its environmental review to exploration work only “was a pretty clear attempt to downplay the impacts on grizzly bears and bull trout.”

“This approach of piecemealing a project has been rejected by courts multiple times in the past,” said Andrea Zaccardi, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.

The Rock Creek mine would employ about 300 people and cover almost 500 acres (202 hectares).

A spokesperson for the Department of Interior, which oversees the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the agency was not commenting on the ruling.

A final decision is pending on Hecla’s second mine in the Cabinet Mountains, known as the Montanore Mine.