Story by Mike Dennison, MTN News
HELENA, Mont. – The first phase of a long-proposed silver and copper mine in the northwest corner of Montana has been approved by the U.S. Forest Service – but developers say they need to settle a legal issue with the state before proceeding.
The Kootenai National Forest on Tuesday approved the exploration phase of the Rock Creek mine, which would be northeast of Noxon.
If the exploration shows that a full-scale mine is feasible, development would continue and the mine eventually would employ 300 people, RC Resources has said.
Next, the company needs final approval from the Forest Service for an operating plan, said Luke Russell, vice president of external affairs for Hecla Mining, which owns RC Resources.
But Russell said the work won’t start until the company settles a lawsuit with the state of Montana, which has said Hecla CEO Phillips Baker Jr. is a “bad actor” under state law and cannot operate mines in the state.
The state filed the case in state District Court in Helena earlier this year.
State officials have said the Rock Creek mine can proceed while the bad-actor case plays out in court, but Russell said the mining company disagrees.
“The court needs to clarify things; we need to get it clarified that the state wouldn’t pull the rug out from under Rock Creek Resources,” he told MTN News Wednesday.
Hecla also wants to develop a silver-and-copper mine on the north side of the Cabinet Mountains, near Libby, and is concerned about the potential effect of the “bad-actor” lawsuit on that project, he added.
That mine – Montanore — has its permits, but the Forest Service continues to work on a supplemental environmental impact statement that may lead to a final decision next year.
Russell said phase one of the Rock Creek mine would be on a 10-acre “portal” where the company plans to drill 6,000 feet into the mineralized area, to test the ore body and see if a larger mine is warranted.
The company will continue to work with the Forest Service on the operating plan for that mine, he said.
“We hope to get that done as quickly as we can, so we can provide jobs and put Montanans to work, just as quickly as the court provides clarification,” Russell said.