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KALISPELL - A mining company finally has broken ground north of Noxon on a controversial project that would tunnel beneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness.

"We're just getting started," said Bill Orchow. "This week, they should be putting some of the buildings in, and they're pouring the footings for the water treatment plant."

Orchow is president and CEO of Revett Minerals Inc., and for years has been working toward approval of the Rock Creek Mine in northwest Montana.

The proposed copper and silver operation has been plagued by local and national opposition, however, and Orchow still must overcome several legal challenges before actual mining can commence.

The current ground work, he said, is in preparation for digging an exploratory tunnel, or adit, beneath the wilderness area. They've been moving dirt, Orchow said, and erecting office and warehouse buildings on private property adjacent to the federal lands they hope to mine.

Already, the mine's opponents are speaking out.

"I'm not happy about it," said Tim Preso, "but at least it's not up in the really sensitive areas."

Preso is attorney for a coalition of conservation groups challenging the Rock Creek project in federal court. His case - arguing that federal regulators did not adequately protect endangered species when recommending the mine - has been rolled in with another lawsuit challenging the mine's Forest Service approval process.

Lawyers had until Wednesday to submit their arguments, "and now we await the judge's decision," Orchow said. "For now, we're moving ahead under the assumption that we will prevail."

Moving the first piles of dirt was something of a milestone for Orchow, who has worked for years to gain approval. Revett, which also owns the nearby Troy Mine, has come under fire by many who fear affects on fish and wildlife, as well as downstream water pollution.

In fact, federal regulators have been forced back to the drawing board several times now, as courts have ruled their decisions inadequate.

The company received its latest go-ahead from Forest Service officials last winter, a decision that opened the door for this spring's site work.

In order to move the work onto adjacent federal lands, however, the company must first provide the court a 20-day notice of intent.

"And we're not going to sit back and do nothing while we watch those 20 days slide by," Preso said. By which he means plaintiffs will seek an injunction to stop work on federal lands as soon as Revett posts its notice of intent.

"One way or another," Preso said, "they're going to have to win in court. We feel very good about our arguments, and I'm sure they feel good about theirs."

Preso's argument is essentially that protected bull trout will be affected by excessive sediment in Rock Creek, and grizzly bears will be affected by industrialization of their habitat.

Revett's argument is that mitigation measures are, or will be, in place - not only protecting the species but actually enhancing their numbers.

Last week, the company paid its second installment to the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, funding that hires local grizzly bear management specialists that the agency could otherwise not afford. Revett also has purchased some nearby land to replace habitat lost to the mining operation.

In total, Revett has pledged an average $1 million per year over the next 30 years to mitigate for the mine's expected impacts. With metals prices at record highs, that kind of investment makes sense, Orchow said, as does moving ahead with initial construction even before the ongoing litigation is resolved.

"It's absolutely my belief that we will prevail," Orchow said. "We wouldn't be moving forward now if we didn't believe that."

In fact, he hopes to have a favorable court decision in time to begin adit work by early winter. That tunnel, he said, will cut into the mountain some 7,000 feet, allowing Revett to explore for mineral ore.

The water treatment plant currently under construction will handle groundwater pumped from that hole, but will be replaced by a larger facility once full operations begin.

Currently, Orchow said, only a "handful" of Revett employees and contractors are working at the site, but requests have been made for both septic and electric service.

He said he hopes to have a required reclamation plan approved at both the state and federal levels by month's end, guaranteeing clean-up money will be available at the close of the mine's life.

But Preso believes Orchow's timeline is overly optimistic, and insists the company still must cross some substantive legal hurdles before it moves onto federal land. Should plaintiffs prevail in either of the two arguments now before the court, this spring's dirt work could come to naught.

"It's unfortunate," Preso said of the recent site activity. "Ideally, we don't think anything should be done on the mine until the legal questions are answered."

If completed, the 35-year mining project would build several miles of roads into the Cabinets, as well as railroad stations, pipelines, power lines, a tailings treatment plant and other infrastructure on more than 1,500 acres.

At full capacity, it should yield an estimated 10,000 tons of copper and silver ore per day, and employ 300 people for some 20 years.

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