- Associated Press - Monday, April 4, 2016

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - Environmentalists are challenging U.S. Forest Service approval of a $500 million copper and silver mine in northwest Montana, citing concerns from state officials that it could drain surrounding waterways and potentially harm a species of trout protected under federal law.

The lawsuit filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Missoula challenges the Montanore Mine south of Libby near the Idaho line. Sponsor Mines Management Inc. of Spokane, Washington, has been seeking a mining permit for the project since 2004.

But three groups said in Friday’s lawsuit that the government’s authorization for Montanore ignored studies of the mine’s environmental effects. Those government-sponsored studies concluded 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.

Earthworks, the Clark Fork Coalition and Save Our Cabinets said the water depletions would cause severe damage to the habitat of federally-protected bull trout.

“It’s simply not smart to treat wilderness waterways this way,” said Karen Knudsen with the Clark Fork Coalition. “There are laws in place that require the Forest Service to make sure any action complies with state water laws. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality thinks the project that’s proposed doesn’t.”

Kootenai National Forest Supervisor Chris Savage said Monday that he has not yet had a chance to review the lawsuit.

But Savage said the agency will not finalize an operations plan for Montanore until Mines Management obtains permits needed from state regulators and other federal agencies, which includes approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

So far, Montana regulators have granted only conditional approval, pending more evidence from the mine’s backers that it won’t drain overlying creeks.

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.

Mines Management Chairman Glenn Dobbs said the company has spent about $46 million to bring the project into compliance with new mining regulations. He said the mine would be “environmentally benign” and accused those behind the lawsuit of raising the alarm over “worst-case scenarios” that bear no resemblance to the realities of modern mining practices.

During its decades of operations, the mine would disturb more than 1,500 acres and remove up to 120 million tons of ore.

The state’s action on Montanore has drawn a backlash from Republicans hoping to unseat Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock. They’ve accused the administration of stalling on a project that would employ about 500 people during construction and about 350 people during mining.


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

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