SANDPOINT - Ten conservation groups, including the Rock Creek Alliance, are suing the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service over its approval of a controversial wilderness mine in northwestern Montana.
The suit alleges the agency's approval violates the Endangered Species Act because the proposed silver and copper mine would severely harm federally protected bull trout and grizzly bears.
The mine, along with attendant activities such as road building, would steer the Cabinet-Yaak grizzly bear population toward extinction, according to the plaintiffs.
“The industrial mining operation will destroy the only thing that will save the last few grizzlies in the Cabinet-Yaak: habitat,” said Louisa Wilcox of the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a statement announcing the lawsuit.
Earthjustice filed the group on behalf of the various groups on Feb. 29. Other groups represented in the suit include the Cabinet Resource Group, Clark Fork Coalition, Trout Unlimited, Earthworks and the Sierra Club.
The groups also contend the project would undermine efforts to improve bull trout habitat and threaten its existence in the basin.
“Considerable resources have been directed toward restoring bull trout populations in the Lower Clark Fork River, and Rock Creek is a vital part of the Lower Clark Fork bull trout population. Those efforts will be wasted if this mine becomes operational,” said Michael Garrity of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, which is also represented in the suit.
Some of the groups are already suing the U.S. Forest Service and Montana Department of Environmental Quality over their approvals of the project.
Jim Costello of the Rock Creek Alliance asserts there are still major elements of the mining proposal which have not been even been designed yet.
“The way that I look at this mine is that it's build first/design later. That's what's happening here. They are going to design as they go,” Costello said in an interview on Wednesday.
He said there is no final design on the mine's tailings impoundment facility and it's still unknown how Revett Minerals intends to reclaim the mine once it is played out.
Costello further contends that the agency approvals are based on older versions of Fish & Wildlife's biological opinions, several of which have been rendered over the years.
“We don't think it's valid because it's not based on current information which is in the 2006 bi-op. It's based on old information,” Costello said of the Forest Service's approval.
Carson Rife, vice president of Revett's operations, disputed the lack of a plan for dealing with mine tailings, but said there are portions of the project which are dependent on the outcome of an evaluation of the ore body and other geologic characteristics.
“Once we complete that first phase we would then update the plans for the construction phase from there, taking whatever information we gathered and incorporating it into the next phase,” Rife said on Wednesday.
The company is also purchasing 2,000 acres to set aside as bear habitat, funding a wildlife conflict specialist position at the Montana Department of Fish Wildlife & Parks and planning a series of mitigation efforts designed to reduce sedimentation in Rock Creek.
Rife said it is not clear what impact the pending litigation would have on the development of the evaluation adit to probe the ore body.
“That's a bit of an unknown at the moment,” said Rife.