The Cabinet Mountain Wilderness is a small gem in the northwest corner of our state that offers a rare glimpse of temperate forest, with towering red cedar, hemlock and moss-covered streams. This sliver of Wilderness is just 4 percent of the Kootenai National Forest, but it protects the headwaters of important river systems, provides refuge for native fish and wildlife, and is a lasting source of pristine water for those downstream.
The ecologically rich Cabinets also harbor a copper and silver deposit. For decades, mining companies have set their sights on those riches. Citizen action – along with legal, economic and ecological hitches – have held them back. But decisions made last week by the U.S. Forest Service and state of Montana have given the proposed Montanore Mine a partial green light to proceed.
That’s a problem. To reach the Montanore deposit, Mines Management, Inc. proposes to tunnel under the wilderness for almost three and a half miles. That means 1,500 acres of industrial disturbance and waste disposal in pristine areas. Worse, the environmental impact study predicts that tunneling and mining will tap deep, water-bearing fractures in the rock, diverting flow from wilderness headwater streams to the mine portal. That’s not fixable. There is no permanent plug that could stop the leak, and the damage would last forever.
These impacts are not conjecture. Groundwater modeling completed by the company’s own consultants show the mine would drain headwater streams in the wilderness. On the west side of the Cabinets, the East Fork of Rock Creek would be 60-100 percent dewatered downstream from the wilderness boundary and 100 percent above it. East Fork Bull River, a vital stronghold for threatened bull trout, would be reduced by up to 90 percent within the wilderness. On the east side of the Cabinets, Ramsey, Libby and Poorman creeks would also see diminished flows.
Even with mitigation, wilderness streams would be dewatered for 1,200-1,300 years. Many would never fully recover. Goodbye, refuge for native fish and wildlife; farewell, cold, clean water for downstream communities.
Impacts don’t stop at dewatering. Pollution from this massive mine development could also wipe out key populations of threatened bull trout and could mean extinction for the Cabinet Mountains’ struggling grizzly bear population – an estimated 21 bears at last count.
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Fortunately, Montana has a non-degradation rule that prohibits this level of dewatering of Outstanding Resource Waters, as these streams are classified. The mining company has maintained that if they can tunnel a little deeper and collect more data, the modeling results will change. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality’s recent Record of Decision allows them to do this.
Yet it’s been done before. In fact, over the years, the more data MMI collected and the closer they looked at impacts, the worse this project appeared for wilderness waters. The Environmental Protection Agency rejected the original environmental impact statement in 2009 out of concern for dewatering and asked the company to further study the mine’s potential for drying up area streams. So MMI went back to the drawing board and developed a model that better predicts impacts on streamflows. The results showed more serious dewatering than previous models projected.
Montana DEQ and the Forest Service have enough information now to simply say “no.” And they should. The purpose of an environmental impact analysis is to take a hard look. They’ve done that, and this project fails.
Enter state politics. Rep. Ryan Zinke and Sen. Steve Daines, along with gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte, have blasted Montana DEQ for not permitting the entire project. This, despite the company’s own scientific study showing that doing so would violate Montana’s non-degradation standard. It is the height of irresponsibility to urge an agency to violate the law. And it’s wrong to turn a blind eye to such devastating impacts to our water resources.
DEQ’s partial approval at least comes with an acknowledgement that the full mine project will violate state water quality law. Unfortunately, the Forest Service appears to have succumbed to political pressure and approved the full mine, even though every analysis shows it will inflict irreversible damage on one of the last remaining refuges for threatened bull trout and grizzly bears in our region.
Most Montanans know that the days of mining at any cost are over. But it’s not too late to turn this around. The Cabinet Mountains Wilderness was one of the first 10 wilderness areas created by Congress. It’s the real Montana treasure. Let’s keep it that way.