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Cabinet Mountains

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

Days after one northwest Montana mining project won state approval to start operating near the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, another expects to see its supplemental environmental impact statement arrive for public review this week.

Coeur d’Alene-based Hecla Mining Co. officials said they expected the environmental review to reach the U.S. Forest Service on Tuesday, with publication expected in the Federal Register on Friday. That starts a 45-day comment period.

Hecla took over Revett Mining Co. in June, paying Revett shareholders $20 million in Hecla stock in the deal. That spelled the closure of Revett’s Troy Mine, but gave greater impetus on opening the larger Rock Creek Mine project five miles northeast of Noxon, in Sanders County. That mine holds a purported 229 million ounces of silver and 2 billion pounds of copper.

Hecla digs for silver at the Lucky Silver Mine in Mullan, Idaho, and the Greens Creek Mine in Alaska. It also has a gold mine in Quebec. The Rock Creek Mine would operate on a 1,550-acre property the company owns. It expects to release its 2015 year-end financial results on Feb. 23.

The company reported a third-quarter loss to shareholders of $10 million. In its statement, Hecla analysts said falling prices for its metals were a major factor. Gold decreased 12 percent from $898 per ounce in 2014 to $793 this year, mainly due to the weaker Canadian dollar compared to the U.S. dollar. Silver fell from $18.53 per ounce in 2014 to $14.54 this year.

Meanwhile, Friday saw the Montana Department of Environmental Quality grant conditional approval to the $500 million Montanore project, proposed by Spokane-based Mines Management Inc. The permit covers air quality discharge and a transmission line. A coalition of environmental groups filed suit against it last July, arguing the project threatens the habitat of a remote population of grizzly bears. Many of the same objectors warned the project would also drain groundwater supplies for local streams and rivers.

“When it comes to mining in Montana, it’s important to get the full picture of the potential for long-lasting, cumulative damage to vital creeks and streams.” Clark Fork Coalition executive director Karen Knudsen said Friday. “The cumulative impact of two mines in this wilderness area, Montanore and the nearby Rock Creek Mine, is the elephant in the room, but no one at DEQ and the Forest Service seem to want to address it.”

Mines Management acquired the Montanore project in 2002, after other companies had spent about $100 million exploring it between the 1980s and ‘90s. Company officials reported spending more than $7 million since then dewatering and rehabilitating its underground chambers and building infrastructure. They expected to produce 12.5 tons of ore a day, resulting in 6 million ounces of silver and 50 million pounds of copper a year.

Both projects estimate they are sitting on a deposit of more than 230 million ounces of silver and 2 billion pounds of copper. The U.S. Geological Survey identified the area between Coeur d’Alene and Noxon as the world’s sixth-largest copper deposit.

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