Clark Fork on list of endangered rivers
Casey Bishop, left, and his younger brother Robbie spend part of their Sunday trying to hook a big one along the Clark Fork River, enjoying one of the many recreational opportunities the river has to offer. The brothers were with their dad, fishing near the Milltown Dam. Photo by TIM THOMPSON/Missoulian

Rock Creek mine would pollute waterway, says environment group

With a proposed copper and silver mine threatening to undo $1 billion of restoration work, the Clark Fork River is one of the most endangered waterways on the continent, according to a report to be released Monday by a national environmental group.

The Clark Fork is too significant of a resource to risk by permitting the proposed Rock Creek mine, said Kristen McDonald, a conservation associate for American Rivers - the group that each spring releases a list of endangered rivers.

Thirteen rivers are on the 2000 list, including the Clark Fork, the lower Snake River and the Missouri. All, McDonald said, will benefit from the national attention.

"In the past, this listing has been a powerful tool," she said. "It sends a call to the public and policy-makers that significant action is needed. And, generally, it works to help drive public comment and attention toward what we see as the biggest issues facing rivers overall, as well as specific problems on specific rivers."

The Clark Fork's inclusion came at the request of Dori Gilels, Montana director of the Rock Creek Alliance, the Noxon-based environmental group that has since 1987 tried to stop the proposed Rock Creek mine. If permitted, the mine would take silver- and copper-bearing ore from beneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness in northwest Montana.

Each day for 30 years, the mine would send 3 million gallons of wastewater into the Clark Fork River. At project's end, the mine would leave 100 million tons of waste rock in an unlined impoundment a quarter-mile from the river.

"It would be absurd for the state of Montana to permit this project," Gilels said. "It's certainly contrary to common sense, and it's likely contrary to the law."

The endangered designation, she said, "gets our message out nationally. That's one way to nudge regulatory agencies to be more accountable for their actions. They respond to the national spotlight."

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality and the Kootenai National Forest expect to issue a final environmental impact statement on the mine in June.

Since the Rock Creek mine was proposed, the public's attitude toward the Clark Fork River has changed, said Karen Knudsen, program director for the Clark Fork Coalition in Missoula. The mine's ownership has also changed - from ASARCO to the newly formed Sterling Mining Co. of Helena.

The new ownership is troubling, Gilels said, because Sterling chairman Frank Duval has been involved with a lengthy list of environmentally unsound ventures in the past - including the Zortman-Landusky gold mines in north-central Montana; Bunker Hill in Kellogg, Idaho; and the Midnite Mine in Washington state.

Former Montana Gov. Tim Babcock is another of the mine's directors. Neither Duval nor Babcock could be reached for comment. Heather Duval, a spokeswoman for Sterling, said they were aware of Monday's announcement but were not yet ready to respond.

The Rock Creek mine proposal is particularly disappointing because of the $1 billion in restoration work in progress elsewhere on the Clark Fork River, said Tracy Stone-Manning, executive director of the Clark Fork Coalition.

"Why introduce a new polluter?" she asked. "Why would we undermine that investment?"

Stone-Manning's ledger of river restoration projects includes $500 million of Superfund cleanup work from the Clark Fork's headwaters in Warm Springs Ponds to Milltown Reservoir just east of Missoula.

Another $390 million is designated for habitat restoration on the Clark Fork as part of Montana's Natural Resources Damage settlement with Atlantic Richfield Co.

Avista Corp. recently pledged $200 million for habitat and fisheries work on the lower river as mitigation for the re-licensing of Cabinet Gorge and Noxon Rapids dams.

And Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. and the cities of Missoula, Butte and Deer Lodge have agreed to spend up to $62 million to reduce their discharge of nutrients into the Clark Fork.

It does not make sense, Stone-Manning said, for corporations and local governments to spend money repairing the river, then to see their work undone by a newly permitted mine.

Among other things, the Rock Creek mine would add nutrients to the Clark Fork River "after everyone upstream worked so hard to get them out of the river," she said.

"It is critical that these restoration initiatives succeed," said Matt Clifford, a spokesman for the Westslope Chapter of Trout Unlimited. "The basin's native trout have taken some hard hits over the years, and these projects can help them turn the corner toward recovery.

"A mine like the Rock Creek project could set everything back to zero."

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