Montanore approvals overturned

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SANDPOINT — A federal judge is overturning agency approvals of the proposed Montanore copper and silver mine in northwestern Montana.

U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula issued two rulings Tuesday which faulted the U.S. Forest and Fish & Wildlife services for signing off on the contested mine, court records show.

Molloy concluded “{t}he project is anticipated to have serious negative impacts on local populations of bull trout and an already declining grizzly bear population.”

A coalition of environmental and conservation groups filed suit in federal court over agency approvals of the project in 2014 and 2016. The groups include Save Our Cabinets, the Clark Fork Coalition, Earthjustice, Earthworks and Defenders of Wildlife.

Hecla Inc. is proposing the mine in order to extract up to 120 million tons of ore during the life of the 20-year mine. It expected to employ as many as 450 people at full production.

The targeted ore is located beneath and adjacent to the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, regarded as one of the last remaining undeveloped habitat strongholds for grizzly and bull trout.

The groups argued agency approvals of the project violated the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water and National Forest Management acts. The litigation challenged the Forest Service’s record of decision on the project and Fish & Wildlife’s determination that the mine would not jeopardize bull trout or grizzly bear.

Arguments in the cases were heard on March 30 and Molloy issued two rulings that are spread across 125 pages of court documents.

The groups argued that project will substantially reduce or eliminate entirely the baseflow of East Fork Rock Creek, East Fork Bull River and Libby Creek, which are designated as outstanding resource waters. Montanore contended mitigation measures would be developed after data is collected during the mine’s evaluation phase.

“That position puts the proverbial cart before the horse,” wrote Molloy, who ruled that approval of the project was arbitrary, capricious and in violation of Montana water quality standards.

Molloy also held that the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act because it did not consider mitigations for impacts to Poorman Creek.

However, Molloy ruled that the project does not appear to violate water quality standards as they relate to sedimentation and temperature, according to the ruling.

In the companion ruling, Molloy said Fish & Wildlife acted arbitrarily when it determined that the mine was unlikely to jeopardize grizzly bears and bull trout or destroy or adversely modify critical habitat for bull trout.

The project is expected to disrupt groundwater resources that are likely to reduce baseflow in several streams and introduce warmer water.

The projected reduction in baseflow is expected to reduce the size of stream flows during low-flow periods, thereby disrupting access to spawning sites and reducing the availability of adult and juvenile habitats.

“Given the magnitude of the project’s effects and the self-ascribed importance of the local populations at issue, the agency’s no jeopardy conclusion for bull trout was arbitrary and capricious,” Molloy said in the ruling.

Molloy also ruled that the no-jeopardy call on grizzly bears was also arbitrary.

Keith Kinnaird can be reached by email at kkinnaird@bonnercountydailybee and follow him on Twitter @KeithDailyBee.

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