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Judge voids Rock Creek water permit

| March 28, 2006 11:00 PM

A company that wants to mine copper and silver near Noxon claims Friday's ruling to void the water quality permit is not a "major setback."

"We are in the process of revising the permit that regulates the discharge of water," said Carson Rife, vice-president of operations for Revett Minerals Inc. in Spokane Valley, Wash.

State District Court Judge Jeffrey Sherlock on Friday voided the permit for the proposed Rock Creek Mine in the lower Clark Fork River basin beneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness. The ruling was the result of five environmental groups that sued the Montana Department of Environmental Quality for issuing the permit.

Sherlock ruled the DEQ violated the law by issuing a permit that would allow the mine's unlined tailings dump to leach arsenic into the aquifer. State law prohibits mines from causing any increase in existing levels of arsenic, which is known to be a powerful carcinogen associated with bladder, kidney and liver cancer.

The revised permit should take care of the problem, Carson said.

"We were in the process of revising that as part of a 5-year renewal," he said. "Every five years, Montana permits need revised. What the judge said doesn't mean the proposed mine could not go forward."

A representative from one environmental group that filed the suit claimed the judge's ruling will send the project "back to the drawing board."

"We've been saying for years that this mine would degrade water quality," said Tracy Stone-Manning, executive director of the Clark Fork Coalition. "Although it's extremely unfortunate that we were forced to take our arguments to the courts, it's gratifying to have an independent judge confirm what we've been saying all along."

While the judge voided the water quality permit, he declined to immediately rule for the groups on two related water quality issues involving contaminated seepage from the proposed mine's main tunnel and mill facility, but indicated he may void the permit on those grounds as well following a trial.

The ruling is the latest in a series of setbacks for the proposed mine, which would create 250 jobs that pay $40,000 a year.

In 2004, a federal court found the mine would violate the Endangered Species Act by threatening grizzly bear and bull trout populations.

"We are currently expecting to see a draft of the biological opinion," Rife said. "Hopefully within the next several weeks we would hope to see that draft from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service."

In the past year, two cave-ins have occurred at the nearby Troy Mine, which both the Forest Service and Revett have used as an example to show that similar cave-ins would not occur in the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness overlying the Rock Creek Mine.

"This mine has nothing but problems," said Mary Costello of the Rock Creek Alliance, also involved with the suit against DEQ. "But when you look at the pristine surroundings where they're trying to dig this huge mine, that should come as no surprise. There are some places that are just not suitable for a mine."

The case also was brought forward by the Cabinet Resource Group, Montana Environmental Information Center and Trout Unlimited.