On a Mean Streak 

Alliance offers a week-long lesson on the Rock Creek mine

If you happened to be on the UM campus April 9, you may have seen a half-dozen streakers sprinting across the still-brown lawns. Rather than a rite of spring, the stunt, dubbed The Streak for the Creek, was designed to draw attention to the proposed Rock Creek mine. A decision from the Forest Service about whether or not to grant a permit for the mine may come as soon as June, and Rock Creek Alliance director Rick Stern wants to make sure Clark Fork watershed residents aren’t caught with their pants down when it comes to being informed about the environmental consequences of the mine.

“Despite the playful nature of Monday’s student-initiated streak, it’s important that people understand the mine is a very serious issue,” Stern says. “This week provides one of the last opportunities for people to express their opinions about this massive copper and silver mine before the Forest Service and the state of Montana issue a final Environmental Impact Statement this summer. We want people to know that they can still make their voices heard and express their displeasure over the negative consequences that will inevitably occur from the building of this mine.”

The week of awareness-raising events also included a play, music, a reading by William Kittredge, and a march on the Forest Service’s Region I headquarters, where protesters hoped to convince outgoing Region I chief—and soon-to-be head of the U.S. Forest Service—Dale Bosworth to deny a mine permit.

The event, however, was not all pomp and circumstance. The Rock Creek Alliance has been at work preparing a report on the proposed mine’s effects on water quality in the Clark Fork. The final draft of the report was presented to the Forest Service at the April 13 rally. Sterling Mining Co., the company proposing to build the mine, is floating experimental technology as the foundation of managing the 3 million gallons of wastewater per day the mine would generate if it operated at capacity. In addition, 100 million tons of rock from underneath the Cabinet Mountains would be left in mine tailings that would rise up to 300 feet over 340 acres within a quarter-mile of the confluence of the creek and the Clark Fork River.

“The methods they’re talking about have been used to treat municipal wastewater, but never mine wastewater,” Stern points out. “This method is susceptible to failure when cold water, which will definitely be present, or large quantities of metals are found in the water that’s being treated. But the company is saying, ‘Let us gamble on this.’”

Given Sterling’s record, that may not be a bet many western Montanans are willing to make. Some directors and CEOs of Sterling have a checkered legal past, one that has left Montana and other states holding the bag for hundreds of millions of dollars owed in inadequate reclamation bonds and defaulted loans that have left a trail of Superfund sites and busted communities around the west.

Sterling CEO Frank Duval and company director Hobart Teneff co-founded Pegasus Gold, the company that polluted the waterways around the Little Rocky Mountains near the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation with the Zortman-Landusky gold mine. According to the Rock Creek Alliance report, half of all the streams in this region are irretrievably polluted with acids and heavy metals from the mine. In 1996, Pegasus settled with the state of Montana for $37 million to upgrade wastewater treatment from the mine, including a $2 million civil penalty.

Duval and his partners also re-opened the Bunker Hill Mine in Silver Valley, Idaho in 1988, putting the finishing touches on what is now one of the largest Superfund sites in the nation. In 1991, Duval and company filed for bankruptcy, leaving Idaho’s Shoshone County with a $2 million tax liability and a $400,000 shortfall for the Kellogg School District. One of Duval’s partners in Pegasus is Tim Babcock, whom some may recall as the man who in 1998 tried to strip from the books the voter-mandated initiative banning cyanide mining in Montana. Babcock pleaded guilty to Watergate charges that he concealed the origins of money for Nixon’s re-election campaign, and is a director of James Watt’s Mountain States Legal Foundation, a legal arm of the wise-use movement. Duval also defaulted on bank loans in the early ’90s for another Silver Valley mine, Star Phoenix. A plaintiff in a resulting court case accused Duval of defrauding his creditors by transferring assets to a Neal Degerstom, a mining industry executive, prior to filing personal bankruptcy. An out-of-court settlement resulted in Duval paying $650,000. Among the creditors in a separate suit were 100 miners demanding more than a half million dollars in back pay.

Phone calls to Sterling headquarters in Veradale, Wash., found CEO Frank Duval out of the country, and other executives in the firm were unwilling to go on the record, though Duval’s secretary said he would be sure to call as soon as he returned to the States.

“I’ve heard [Duval] is a charmer, that he could charm your ear off,” comments Stern. Whether Duval and Sterling can charm the Forest Service and thousands of western Montana residents may be decided before the snow melts out of the Cabinet Mountains this summer.

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