- Associated Press - Thursday, March 26, 2015

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - A dispute over the value of some mining claims held by investors, including former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, is headed to trial, even as federal officials on Thursday gave tentative approval to the mine proposal at issue.

Schweitzer and a group of investors are seeking $10 million in compensation over mining claims that were condemned to make way for the proposed Montanore silver and copper mine near Libby.

Project sponsor Mines Management Inc. of Spokane, Washington, rejected the group’s compensation figure during court-ordered settlement talks on Wednesday.

That sets the stage for a trial next month in Missoula, where a three-member commission overseen by a federal judge will try to settle the issue.

The U.S. Forest Service on Thursday issued a long-awaited environmental study that would allow the mine to proceed pending final approval.

Agency officials said the project would disturb 1,500 acres of mainly Forest Service land. The mine would process up to 20,000 tons of ore daily at full production.

Mines Management chief executive Glenn Dobbs says the agency’s announcement marks a major step forward.

“It’s the culmination of 10 years of very hard work by good people at the U.S. Forest Service and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and within our company,” Dobbs said.

Kootenai National Forest Supervisor Chris Savage said in a statement that the agency will open a 45-day comment period to take objections before making a final decision.

Approval also is needed from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

The Montanore mine site holds an estimated 1.7 billion pounds of copper and 230 million ounces of silver, according to Mines Management.

The mine plan calls for surface operations just outside the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness Area, with drilling underneath. Dobbs said mining could begin sometime around 2019 and the mine will employ 300 to 350 people at peak production.

Environmentalists have raised concerns that the mine would have detrimental effects on the environment.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in a biological opinion on the project issued last year that the mine won’t substantially harm grizzly bears or other threatened or endangered species.

The agency said the mine could lead to the loss of one federally protected grizzly bear. But it said required mitigation - including the purchase of 5,000 acres of grizzly habitat at risk for development - would make up for the loss.

Mines Management Inc. has been working to permit the mine since 2005.

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