A state judge has ordered the Montana Department of Natural Resources to reconsider its approval of plans to mine under the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness.

The ruling last week affects efforts by Hecla Mining Corp. to explore for copper and silver in its proposed Rock Creek Mine northeast of Noxon. Challengers argued the underground project would drain water away from streams and lakes inside the wilderness.

“It’s a significant victory for us,” said Mary Costello of the Rock Creek Alliance, one of several environmental and conservation groups opposed to Hecla’s project. “Mining is not compatible with a wilderness area.”

District Court Judge Kathy Seeley ruled on April 9 that DNRC reviewers failed to properly consider water quality and quantity impacts of the proposed mine when they approved the project on Jan. 29, 2018. Hecla needed a state beneficial water use permit because its own studies showed the mine’s groundwater pumping might completely drain at least one stream inside the wilderness area.

Montana state law protects unique water resources “of such environmental, ecological or economic value that the state should, upon a showing of necessity, prohibit, to the greatest extent practicable, changes to the existing water quality of those waters.” It considers the waters of federal wilderness areas and national parks as “outstanding resource waters” that get such protection.

“The ruling also affirms that the state’s job is to protect Montana’s waters for the benefit of all Montanans,” said Earthjustice attorney Katherine O’Brien, “not to give those waters away to corporate interests without taking a hard look at the impacts.”

Lawyers for DNRC and Hecla argued that only the state Department of Environmental Quality or a local water quality district could raise such an argument. The environmental groups countered that the Montana Constitution’s protection of a “clean and healthful environment” gave them standing to object to the permit. Seeley didn’t rule on that question, stating the more basic state law requiring full analysis of the water use resolved the matter.

“We believe the judge’s decision greatly expands the universe DNRC will have to assess on water rights in the future,” Hecla Vice President for External Affairs Luke Russell said on Monday. “We think the decision goes much beyond what the regulations talk about on existing water rights.”

Russell added the company does not believe Seeley’s decision blocks its ability to continue work on an exploratory tunnel under the wilderness.

“That exploration phase will allow us to get the detailed information to better assess the impacts of full mining,” Russell said. The decision also has no effect on Hecla’s efforts on a second Montana mine probing the same ore body from another direction.

Mine opponent Bonnie Gestring of Earthworks said Hecla still faces two more legal challenges: one looking at how the mines might hurt federally protected grizzly bears and bull trout in the wilderness and one regarding Montana’s “Bad Actor” law blocking mining executives connected to past unreclaimed mine clean-ups from developing new mines in the state.

Montana DEQ has sued to stop Hecla Chief Executive Officer Phillips S. Baker Jr. from participating in the two projects because of his past connection to the bankrupt Pegasus Gold Corp. mines in Montana.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.