USFS revises Rock Creek decision

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The pristine wilderness terrain around the site of the proposed Rock Creek Mine drains directly into the watershed that connects the Clark Fork River with Lake Pend Oreille. (Photo courtesy WOODS WHEATCROFT)

SANDPOINT — The U.S. Forest Service appears to be slowing its roll on permitting of the proposed Rock Creek Mine in northwest Montana.

The agency advised opponents of the copper and silver mining proposal that it was modifying a Record of Decision to permit development of only the project’s first phase, which allows for the excavation of an adit to evaluate the ore body beneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness. The second phase of the project, which involves development of the mine itself, will be subject to additional review.

The project’s original Record of Decision approved both Phase I and Phase II.

“My specific concern with signing a Record of Decision approving the entire project is the inherent level of uncertainty in the analysis, based on the current availability of information,” Deputy Regional Forester David Schmid said in an Oct. 31 letter to conservation groups which raised objections to the project’s Environmental Impact Statement and ROD.

Schmid said the inaccessibility of the underground rock formations limited the amount of information that was initially available, which creates a degree of uncertainty in evaluating the specific impacts related to groundwater prior to actual mine development, Schmid noted in the 23-page letter.

“While models and estimates of groundwater conditions can be developed based on the best available information, actual knowledge of underground conditions may not be fully known, or knowable, until underground operations are underway and additional data can be collected,” Schmid said in the letter.

Conservation groups, which include the Rock Creek Alliance and the Clark Fork Coalition, raised 30 specific issues related to impacts on grizzly bear, bull trout, groundwater, surface water and wilderness. Objections were also raised about subsidence and tailings stability.

The groups deposing the mine said on Thursday that the scaling back of the ROD represented something of a victory, although they were dismayed that the Forest Service is allowing the project to proceed.

“While we are pleased that the Forest Service will not permit the full mine, allowing the first phase of the mine to proceed would needlessly jeopardize wilderness waters and threatened bull trout and grizzly bears for the development of a mine that the agency recognizes cannot meet state and federal laws,” Mary Costello, executive director of the Rock Creek Alliance, said in a statement on Thursday.

Coeur d’Alene-based Hecla Mining Co. contends the letter merely instructs the Kootenai National Forest on how to complete the record of decision for Rock Creek and adds that it is not a final decision on the project.

“Rock Creek has always been a phased approval project and the instruction memo is consistent with that approach. Any other characterization of the memo is a mischaracterization,” said Luke Russel, Helca’s vice president of external affairs.

Schmid’s letter includes nearly a half-dozen instructions, such as refining estimates for sedimentation countermeasures, clarifying the effects of a pumpback well system on groundwater quality and updating the cumulative impact on grizzly bear from the adjacent Montanore mining project.

Schmid also held that analyses of impacts to grizzly bear and bull trout were sufficient, contrary to concerns raised by conservation groups. Schmid also found that impacts to wilderness were also adequately assessed.

“The project outlines a number of stipulations and mitigations to address these concerns, while clearly recognizing that effects to the wilderness resource cannot be entirely avoided,” Schmid wrote.

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

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