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KALISPELL - Lawsuits continue to pile up in opposition to a controversial mine that would tunnel beneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness north of Noxon.

"We're just trying to make sure that nothing gets started up there before all the questions are answered," said Loren Albright.

Albright sits on the national board of trustees at Trout Unlimited, one of four conservation groups that filed suit Monday to block activity at the proposed Rock Creek Mine.

The groups n which include the Rock Creek Alliance, Clark Fork Coalition and Earthworks n claim sediment from ground disturbance could harm Rock Creek's bull trout. State water quality law, they say, prohibits sediment discharge at levels harmful to fisheries.

"Every state and federal agency to look at the situation agrees that Rock Creek already has all the sediment pollution its native fish can stand," said Karen Knudsen, executive director of the Clark Fork Coalition. "They've said the addition of any more sediment will harm the fishery."

Permitting a mine in the sensitive creek drainage, she said, "just doesn't make sense."

But Carson Rife, vice president of operations at Revett Minerals, says the mine will actually improve Rock Creek's water quality.

"Our implementation plan calls for extensive mitigation measures," Rife said, including fabric fences, sediment traps and upgraded road culverts. The result, he said, is 50 fewer tons of sediment pouring into Rock Creek than currently is the case.

And that's just during the exploratory stage. When the mine is up and running, Rife said, sediment levels will drop by 400 tons per year thanks to the company's mitigation work.

"This has been studied and studied," he said, "since 1987, when the original application was submitted. We're confident water quality will actually be improved once we begin work."

Bonnie Gestring, not surprisingly, disagrees. She's with Earthworks, and contends Forest Service review indicates sediment loads would increase by somewhere between 400 tons and 1,400 tons during the exploratory stage.

In addition, she and the other plaintiffs also are taking issue with the way in which state regulators approved portions of that work. Their suit, filed in state district court in Helena, argues the Montana Department of Environmental Quality erred in handling the Rock Creek work through a "general permit."

General permits, plaintiffs said, allow common projects such as highway work to proceed without a site-specific water quality permit n which would require public involvement.

That system, however, was never intended to apply to projects such as Rock Creek Mine.

"The general permitting laws say in black and white that they don't apply to situations where unique ecological resources are at stake," Albright said. "If Rock Creek doesn't meet that definition, I don't know what does. It's deeply disappointing that the state sees this project as garden-variety construction with no need for public involvement."

Whether it's garden-variety or not, "the department did decide a general permit was the appropriate permit," according to DEQ's chief legal counsel, John North.

On Tuesday, North had not yet seen the lawsuit, but he did confirm that general permits n in this case a construction stormwater permit n are used in cases such as the road work intended at Rock Creek. By law, he said, general permits require companies to implement certain protections as they work, "to ensure that the water discharges are adequately free of sediment."

Having not seen the suit, North did not comment directly on its content, but Rife said he was certain his company and DEQ were operating under the proper regulations and permits.

"That seems to me to be more of a legal issue," he said of the permitting complaint, "and I'm not a lawyer. But I do think that Montana DEQ is following the law as they see appropriate, and we rely on them to tell us which permits are required."

Monday's suit came about a week after Revett announced it had begun construction on the first phase of its copper and silver mine.

For much of the past month, the company has been erecting office and storage buildings on private acres adjacent to the public land where the mine would be sited. Revett also has begun foundation work on a water treatment plant that will handle groundwater pumped from the initial exploratory tunnel.

Rife said the company hopes to start work on that tunnel later in the summer.

That's an optimistic deadline, however, as Monday's lawsuit is not the only legal challenge waiting to be heard.

Previously, a coalition of conservation groups sued in federal court on behalf of endangered species n including Rock Creek's bull trout. A second federal suit challenges the mine's Forest Service approval process.

Those two claims have been rolled into one, and the company must provide the court with a 20-day notice should it decide to begin work on public land.

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

The four filing suit Monday, likewise, say they "will consider seeking an injunction to stop it," should Revett move forward with mine construction.

Last week, company president and CEO Bill Orchow said that for the time being, "we're moving ahead under the assumption that we will prevail" in court. Currently, he said, only a handful of Revett employees are on the site, as pre-mining preparations continue on company land.

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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