Judge vacates water discharge permit for Montanore Mine

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HELENA (AP) — A judge has vacated a water-discharge permit for a silver and copper mine that would tunnel beneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness in northwestern Montana, saying state regulators violated clean water laws in issuing the permit to Hecla Mining Co.

District Judge Kathy Seeley ruled Friday that the Department of Environmental Quality did not set adequate pollution restrictions for the Montanore Mine and gave Hecla too long to meet the requirements.

Her ruling sends the matter back to the DEQ. Agency officials were still reviewing the ruling and declined to comment.

“Hecla’s proposal to mine under the Cabinet Mountains has always been a bad idea for Montana,” said Katherine O’Brien, attorney for Earthjustice, which filed the complaint on behalf of three environmental groups. “This ruling protects clean water on public lands that belong to all of us.”

The decision means Coeur d’Alene, Idaho-based Hecla must comply with current environmental laws to better protect trout streams, said Bonnie Gestring, the Northwest Program Director for Earthworks, which is one of the plaintiffs along with the Montana Environmental Information Center and the group Save Our Cabinets.

Hecla Vice President Luke Russell said Monday the company is still reviewing the ruling, but he said he believed the DEQ made the correct decision in issuing the permits for the proposed mine near Libby.

Bruce Vincent, a third-generation logger from Libby who is a partner in the public relations firm Environomics, said he wants people to remember that the original permit issued 22 years ago has been renewed twice, in 2006 and again in 2015, and the receiving water has always remain protected.

“I understand that the 2015 renewal included the most stringent limits yet and so the court action essentially sent back to DEQ the permit with the most protections to the receiving waters.

“Luke Russell and Doug Stiles noted to me that ‘We were in agreement with DEQ on the parts of the permit challenged by the environmental groups and jointly defended the agency’s decisions because we thought - and continue to believe - that DEQ got it right on those issues. We are evaluating the order and will decide on next steps after completing our analysis.’”

Vincent said he wasn’t surprised at the situation, commenting in an email that “Serial litigants are litigating, Montanore Minerals is analyzing, and I am not surprised.

“As a resident of Libby, and as someone who lives closely downstream from the currently proposed Montanore Evaluation Project, I value clean water,” Vincent said. “I also value the judgment of the Montana DEQ and their decision that the Evaluation Project can move forward without impacting our waters. Frankly, I look forward to the Evaluation Phase of the Montanore Project being completed so that we have real data upon which to base any operations that might occur in the future and I continue to hope for the day that there are more miners working on this project than lawyers. Especially the serial litigants that have made a career out of fighting environmentally sound economic opportunities for the beleaguered working families of my town.”

Friday’s ruling is one of several that have gone in favor of environmental groups who argue two proposed Hecla-owned mines will harm the streams, fish and wildlife in the wilderness area.

“It’s disappointing to see radical enviro groups yet again causing obstruction and getting in the way of Montana jobs,” U.S. Senator Steve Daines said. “After more than three decades and multiple environmental analyses, it’s long overdue to stop the delays of this project and create high-paying Montana jobs for the hardworking folks in Northwest Montana.”

In April, Seeley revoked a water permit for the Rock Creek Mine northeast of Noxon, sending the issue back to Montana’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

In separate cases, Montana regulators have asked a judge to block Hecla CEO Phillips Baker Jr. from exploring or opening new mines. They say he is in violation of the state’s “bad actor” law because of ongoing pollution from a bankrupt gold mining company where Baker once worked as chief financial officer. Baker said he was never in control of that company.

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