- Associated Press - Friday, February 12, 2016

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - Montana environmental regulators granted conditional approval Friday to a long-stalled silver and copper mine proposed beneath a federal wilderness area, saying the developer must show before mining can proceed that the $500 million project won’t drain overlying creeks.

Department of Environmental Quality Director Tom Livers said the agency was approving an air quality permit and a transmission line that would connect to the Montanore mine. Yet that leaves its operating permit still in question, drawing a backlash from Republicans in the state’s Congressional delegation who urged full approval.

Developer Mines Management, Inc. pledged to move forward despite the state’s concerns over water supplies in the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness.

The mine potentially could drain groundwater supplies that feed into creeks and a river in the pristine area, an effect that could linger for centuries, according to government studies.

Mines Management can conduct evaluation work on the site under Friday’s decision. But it won’t be able to start digging until it demonstrates the mine won’t degrade nearby creeks and the East Fork of the Bull River, Livers said in an interview with The Associated Press.

The worry, he said, is that mining will come too close to faults or cracks in the bedrock, opening a pathway for water to drain from the groundwater reserves.

“The company doesn’t think it’s going to happen, but based on the information we’ve got from them thus far, that’s what’s projected,” Livers said. “We do not have the option to authorize any water degradation within the wilderness area.”

He added that the company could resolve the issue by maintaining large buffer zones around the underground faults.

The U.S. Forest Service authorized the mine in a simultaneous action. That decision is contingent on the mine’s backers obtaining permits from the state and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said Kootenai National Forest Supervisor Christopher Savage.

Mines Management, based in Spokane, Washington, previously said anything less than full approval could make it difficult to attract investors or force a sale of Montanore to a larger mining company that might delay the project.

Chairman Glenn Dobbs backed away from that assertion on Friday. He said the company would be able to finance the mine based on the state and Forest Service decisions.

“We believe the Forest Service and Montana (decisions) are something we can live with, we can work with and we can build a mine with,” Dobbs said.

Dobbs says the company will proceed with its $30 million mining evaluation and present the findings to regulators in hopes of quieting their concerns about draining waterways.

A coalition of environmental groups opposed to the mine said the conditions required by the state would fail to safeguard the Bull River and five creeks that come out of the Cabinet Mountains.

“They’ve been studying this mine for years and years. All the evidence to date shows they can’t excavate the deposit under the wilderness area with causing irreparable harm,” said Bonnie Gestring with the group Earthworks.

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Ryan Zinke urged Gov. Steve Bullock to grant full approval. The Republicans have previously warned that a “staged” approval would delay much-needed job creation and tax revenue for Lincoln County. Lincoln has a 10 percent unemployment rate, the highest in the state, according to the Montana Department of Labor and Industry.

The mine would employ about 500 people during construction and about 350 people during mining. It would disturb more than 1,500 acres and remove up to 120 million tons of ore.

Its entrance would be just outside the wilderness area - a rugged, remote landscape that is one of a handful of areas in the United States where the government is seeking to restore grizzly bear populations.

Work on the site began around 1990 under different ownership and was suspended in 1991 due to low metal prices. Mines Management later took over and has been seeking a mining permit since 2004.

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Follow Matthew Brown on Twitter at https://twitter.com/matthewbrownap .

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