Cabinet Mountains

The Cabinet Mountains south of Libby are the site of the proposed Montanore Mine.

Kurt Wilson, Missoulian

A new lawsuit filed against the Montana Department of Environmental Quality challenges a wastewater discharge permit the agency issued for a proposed mine near Libby.

Three environmental groups — the Montana Environmental Information Center, Save Our Cabinets and Earthworks — filed the suit Tuesday in Lewis and Clark County District Court in Helena, asking the judge to declare the permit invalid.

The advocacy groups claim the DEQ broke a variety of regulations when it issued the permit earlier this year for the proposed Montanore copper and silver mine in northwest Montana under the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, which they say could lead to 20,000 tons of ore extracted every day if built.

In May, a federal judge ruled that the U.S. Forest Service’s approval of the mine violated multiple federal and Montana laws, and that an analysis of the proposal had not done enough to look at the impact on bull trout and grizzlies in the area.

“These activities would generate up to 120 million tons of mining waste and pollute streams designated ‘high quality’ under Montana law with metals, sediment, and nutrient pollutants (nitrogen and phosphorous) that are harmful or toxic to aquatic life,” the groups wrote in their lawsuit.

Montanore did not respond to an email request for comment.

The way the permit was issued did not follow the rules of the Clean Water Act and the Montana Water Quality Act, the suit claims. It maintains that the DEQ allowed the proposed mine developers, Montanore Minerals Corp., to use a degradation permit issued 25 years ago for a different mine proposal at the site that was never actually built.

In 1989, another company had proposed a mine site where Montanore will be located, but abandoned plans in 2002. Their permits stayed active however, and in 2006 the current Montanore developers bought the company.

The environmental groups say industry standards, as well as environmental conditions at the site, have changed since the old permit was issued, pointing to the listing of bull trout as a threatened species after the previous planned mine was first proposed.

“DEQ has converted a narrow exception in the Water Quality Act’s nondegradation policy into a blank check that would allow degradation by any proponent of a project to access the Montanore ore body at any point in the future, regardless of the environmental cost,” the lawsuit said.

The permit the DEQ issued earlier this year will authorize pollution discharge that will run into the Libby, Ramsey and Poorman creeks near the mine. The lawsuit says Montanore’s developers asked the DEQ to “renew” the old permit owned by the previous prospective developers that they have since purchased.

The lawsuit says the newly issued permit lacks legally required restrictions to ensure water quality is not harmed, that the DEQ would not say where it obtained the data it used to analyze the potential for environmental damage, and that the permit gives Montanore up to 17 years to comply with certain water quality standards.

“These violations threaten unwarranted pollution of streams that flow through wild public lands and harbor vital native fish populations and they render the challenged permit unlawful,” the lawsuit claims.

The advocacy groups say that when they brought one of the allegations of not regulating the stormwater discharge from the proposed mine, the DEQ responded that it had told the company to use best practices to reduce pollutants.

The groups believe the DEQ must establish such rules, but that even if it is left up to the company the business should have to put in place specific rules before getting a permit. Without that, there would be no public comment or DEQ oversight of those best practices, they argue in the lawsuit.

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