Federal judge rules Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, erred in approving mine under Cabinet Mountain Wilderness

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In two decisions issued at the end of May, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service violated the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Forest Management Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act when they approved a massive mining operation beneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness.

Hecla Mining Company is looking to build the Montanore copper and silver mine on the edge of the wilderness, about 18 miles south of Libby. The mine’s presence would require about 13 miles of paved or expanded roads, 14 miles of electric transmission line, wastewater treatment and holding, and tailings and seepage storage. If constructed, it would process tens of thousands of tons of ore every day.

The mine’s surface operations would be in known grizzly bear and bull trout habitat, and its underground activity would extend beneath the wilderness area, potentially draining millions of gallons of water from the local creeks.

In decisions issued in 2014 and 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service approved the mine project despite acknowledging ecological impacts. If the mine was permitted, it could have de-watered streams in the wilderness, dumped waste water too warm for temperature-sensitive bull trout, and increased the likelihood of grizzly bear-human conflicts.

A coalition of environmental groups including Save Our Cabinets, Earthworks, Earthjustice, and Defenders of Wildlife consistently challenged the project, hoping to overturn the FWS opinion.

Molloy’s wilderness ruling came in response to two lawsuits filed by these conservation groups.

“(The) 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,” said Earthjustice lawyer Katherine O’Brien, who challenged the government’s Endangered Species Act approvals for the mine.

Roger Flynn, an attorney with the Western Mining Action Project who challenged the Forest Service, added, “The federal court’s decision stands for one fundamental point: Clean water, wildlife, and the free-flowing streams of the West cannot be sacrificed for short-term mining industry profits.”

Molloy agreed with environmental groups’ concerns.

He ruled that the mining project would have devastating negative impacts on local bull trout populations and declining grizzly bear populations.

“The Forest Service acted arbitrarily and capriciously in approving the Project despite noncompliance with Montana non-degradation standards in violation oft he Clean Water Act, the Organic Act, and NFMA. The Forest Service also violated NEPA when it did not consider mitigation measures for Poorman Creek. The Forest Service met its statutory obligations in all other respects. The court decision concluded that the Forest Service’s approval was too hasty to approve mine development despite predicted impacts to wilderness waters,” Molloy wrote.

He also ruled that a “no jeopardy” analysis of impacts to grizzly bears and bull trout was “flawed.”

“This decision sends an important signal to permitting agencies and to Hecla Mining Co. that you need to get it right when it comes to water,” said Karen Knudsen, executive director of the Clark Fork Coalition. “Permanently drying up pristine wilderness streams is not getting it right, and we’re glad that the court agreed.”

But Hecla isn’t accepting defeat.

“We’re disappointed but we are not deterred,” Luke Russell, the vice president of external affairs at Hecla. “We will continue to digest the ruling and then sit down with the agencies to discuss the findings.”

Hecla would like to see the continuation of the project evaluation phase and data collection while working with the court’s findings.

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