With all the speed of molasses in January, the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) on the proposed Rock Creek mine outside of Noxon appears close to fruition. Reports on the exact date of the FEIS vary, but if the most recent issue date of August 22nd doesn’t hold up, the latest it will appear is the second week in September, according to sources closely involved with the project.
As might be expected with something more than 14 years in the making, the permitting process for the mine has generated a mass of issues that rival the size of the Cabinet Mountain peaks that would be worm-holed by copper and silver extraction tunnels should the project be approved. The rights to the Rock Creek project were bought from ASARCO, along with the currently inactive Troy mine, by the Sterling Mining Company of Veradale, Wash. in 1997. The Troy mine, regarded as a sort of precursor to the Rock Creek project by those on both sides of the issue, operated from 1981 to 1993, when mining activity was suspended due to low market prices for copper and silver. During its twelve years of operation, the Troy mine yielded approximately 5 million ounces of silver and 42,000 tons of copper per year. Sterling’s web site lists the ore body targeted by the Rock Creek project at more than 300 million ounces of silver and 2 billion pounds of copper, of which the company believes they could “conservatively” harvest 115 million ounces of silver and 467,000 tons of copper over a 20-year span.
While Sterling is dancing to the tune of a potentially huge payoff, a number of its dance partners are hearing a distinctly different song. The Sandpoint, Idaho-based Rock Creek Alliance is a coalition of 11 environmental groups that have been fighting the proposed mining project tooth and nail. The list of concerns that form the bedrock of RCA’s opposition to the project is a long and detailed one, but chief among them is the potential harm to watersheds in the Cabinet Mountains and water quality in the lower Clark Fork Basin, which would receive 3 million gallons of treated water per day from an active Rock Creek mine.
When the final EIS does come out, an official Record of Decision—issued jointly by the Forest Service and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality—should follow within 30 days or so. Given the maelstrom of contention that has swirled around this project, however, it’s fair to say that this dance is far from over.