Federal judge overturns approvals for proposed Montana mine

By AMY BETH HANSON Markets Associated Press

The U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated laws meant to protect threatened species and their habitat in approving the development of a copper and silver mine under a wilderness area in Montana, a federal judge has ruled.

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U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy on Tuesday ruled the agencies would have to reconsider their findings related to the Montanore Mine in the Kootenai National Forest about 18 miles south of Libby.

Molloy said the project is expected to reduce stream flows for threatened bull trout and increase the potential for human interactions with threatened grizzly bears, and it made no sense for the wildlife service to say the project would not harm those species.

The Forest Service violated the Endangered Species Act in relying on those flawed biological opinions in granting permission to develop the mine, Molloy wrote.

Willie Sykes, a public information officer with the Kootenai National Forest, said the agency was reviewing Molloy's decision and could not yet comment.

"Yesterday's ruling underscores how wrong it is to site major industrial facilities on the doorstep of public wilderness lands that provide irreplaceable habitat for imperiled wildlife," Earthjustice lawyer Katherine O'Brien said in a statement Wednesday.

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She represented several conservation groups who challenged the approvals for the mine.

The Montanore Mine, proposed by Coeur d'Alene, Idaho-based Hecla, sought to mine ore underneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness by accessing the underground deposit from land just outside the wilderness area.

The agencies approved the mine despite decisions that acknowledged impacts including lowered stream flows that would make bull trout spawning areas unreachable and dumping wastewater into the stream that is too warm for the threatened fish, the conservation groups argued.

The wildlife services' biological opinion concluded the mine would lead to the death of one grizzly bear over a 30-year period and that mitigation efforts planned by Hecla would more than offset that death, but Molloy found the agency had no precise data to make such a statement.

Officials with Hecla did not return a phone call seeking comment, but company officials have said they have spent about $46 million to bring the project into compliance with new mining regulations. The mine would create an estimated 350 permanent jobs.

Glenn Dobbs with Mines Management, which was acquired by Hecla, has said the Montanore Mine would be "environmentally benign" and said the lawsuits raised alarm over worst-case scenarios that are unlikely to happen.

In a separate but related complaint, Molloy also found approvals for the project violated the Clean Water Act, the National Forest Management Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.