Hecla is hopeful about mines despite legal fight

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Despite several lingering legal challenges, officials with an Idaho mining company remain confident they will be able to open two mines in Northwest Montana at some point in the future.

Hecla Mining Co.’s subsidiary, RC Resources, wants to open the Rock Creek Mine near Noxon and the Montanore Mine near Troy.

Bruce Vincent, of Montana-based Environomics, and Nick Raines, environmental coordinator for Hecla’s Libby office, spoke Wednesday at the Sanders County commissioners meeting.

“We’re hoping we’ll get the OK from DEQ (Montana Department of Environmental Quality) in the early part of 2020 to move forward,” Raines said.

At issue are two major components — the enforcement of a “bad actor” law by Montana DEQ against Hecla Chief Executive Officer Phillips Baker, Jr., and a water permit that was first approved by the Montana Department of Natural Resources in 2019 for the Noxon mine.

In the bad actor matter, the state Department of Environmental Quality’s lawsuit is seeking a court order that upholds its ruling that Baker violated a state law that forbids companies and their principal officers who don’t pay for the cleanup of old mines from starting new ones.

The state alleged Baker was in violation of the state’s bad actor law because of ongoing pollution caused by Pegasus Gold Co., a mining company where Baker once worked. Since Pegasus went bankrupt, the state has paid more than $35 million for cleanup work at the company’s mines.

According to a state DEQ representative, the suit still hasn’t been settled as it waits on a decision from District Court Judge Mike Menahan in Helena.

In the water-permit matter, it was first approved by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation in 2019 for the Noxon mine. But Lewis & Clark County District Judge Kathy Seeley rejected the permit.

The ruling is being appealed, according to Raines.

“It really doesn’t affect Phase I of the project, so we can proceed in the first phase,” Raines said.

While Hecla officials wait to see what happens, they remain encouraged the mines will open at some point, but realize it will be years before either opens.

On its website, Hecla states the Rock Creek Mine, planned to be an underground room-and-pillar operation, would produce an estimated 6 million ounces of silver and 50 million pounds of copper annually.

Hecla also said that during the life of the mine (currently estimated at 33 to 38 years), Rock Creek would provide more than 300 full-time jobs, a $667 million payroll, $175 million in tax revenue, and $400 million toward the purchase of goods and services.

Sanders County officials say the Rock Creek and Montenore mines are extremely important to their future economies.

While the Montanore Mine is located in neighboring Lincoln County, the vein begins in Sanders County, so mineral money would also come to Sanders County, according to Sanders County Commissioner Carol Brooker.

Commissioner A.B. “Tony” Cox said the mines’ impact economically would be substantial for the county’s residents.

“The taxes, the jobs for our citizens would be significant, but we still want to do it correctly and cleanly,” Cox said.

According to Montana Department of Labor and Industry figures as of December 2019, Sanders County’s unemployment rate was 6.1%, the sixth-highest rate in the state.

On its website, Hecla touts silver and copper as “absolutely essential in today’s modern world – not only in the recent innovations in alternative energy, but also in computers, tablets, cellphones, electrical components, air and water purifiers and the aerospace industry.”

Information posted on its website notes the solar-power industry alone uses about 5 percent of the world’s annual silver supply; the average car produced in North America has as much as 55 pounds of copper in it, with double that amount needed for hybrid vehicles; a single wind turbine can contain 335 tons of steel and 4.7 tons of copper.

But opponents of the mines point to environmental concerns, impacts on the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness and some of Hecla’s past fines for violations.

According to a Spokesman-Review story, in 2015 Hecla agreed to pay $600,000 in fines for releasing heavy metals and other pollution into the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River from 2009-2014 from the Lucky Friday Mine in Mullan, Idaho.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency documented about 500 violations of Hecla’s federal discharge permit at the Lucky Friday.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, in 2011 Hecla paid a $263 million settlement related to its liability for massive environmental contamination from lead and arsenic-laced mine tailings at the Bunker Hill Superfund Site in Idaho.

There are also concerns of what the mines would mean for threatened species such as grizzly bears or bull trout.

Jim Jensen, executive director of the Montana Environmental Information Center, didn’t mince words about his feelings about the proposed mines.

“The history tends to make us believe in the inevitability of pollution during mining and after,” Jensen said. “Our previous concerns remain the same in terms of the impacts these mines would have on endangered species, such as bull trout, grizzly bears and lynx.

“Thirty-five years ago, I would have believed companies were operating in good faith, but every single company says the same thing and we still get the same result — pollution,” Jensen said. “Water is the foundation for the survival of people and wildlife and we shouldn’t take the risks of ruining it.”

Some of the discussion at Wednesday’s meeting revolved around available workers and housing if the mines are opened.

Jen Kreiner, executive director of the Sanders County Community Development Corp., asked if there would be training opportunities.

Vincent said Hecla would work with county schools and students so they would know what skill sets are needed to work on such projects.

“Mining is not what it was 30, 40 years ago,” Vincent said. “Most of the jobs are outside of the mine. We are using machines that have been designed in Europe and are primarily operated remotely with joysticks.”

With limited housing in Sanders County, filling those needs are something officials hope to get a handle on in the future.

Brooker said the county Housing Board, along with Lake and Mineral counties, applied for a $100,000 grant to help do an assessment of housing.

She said a Las Vegas firm with ties to Mineral County was hired to do the assessment.

“We’ve gotten some other contributions from area businesses, but we’re hoping Hecla will contribute, too,” Brooker said.

Vincent also told the commissioners it was planning a public tour of its reclamation work at Troy Mines sometime in late spring.

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