Company says operation wouldn't violate any laws

For nearly a century, Missoula turned its back to the Clark Fork River.

"We used it to transport things that we didn't want," Mayor Mike Kadas said Monday. "As late as the 1950s and early 1960s, our wastewater was deposited right into the river. And our downtown businesses faced the other way."

But Missoula has a new attitude about the river that runs through it, the mayor said at a news conference. "The people of this valley are investing in the Clark Fork. We are making it cleaner. And we expect nothing less of everyone else."

That includes the proposed Rock Creek mine, Kadas said. If approved, the mine would release 3 million gallons of treated - but still tainted - wastewater into the Clark Fork River every day and would leave 100 million tons of tailings in an unlined impoundment a quarter-mile from the river.

It would, Kadas said, undo the good work of those who live and work along the river upstream.

It also is the reason why American Rivers, a national environmental group, named the Clark Fork as one of the continent's most endangered rivers in a report released Monday.

"This listing underscores that a new mine is not consistent with reclaiming and restoring our natural landscape," said Dori Gilels, Montana director of the Rock Creek Alliance, a conservation group organized to oppose the mine.

By drilling into the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness and extracting copper- and silver-bearing ore, the mine would damage the public's investment in the Clark Fork River - estimated by Gilels as $1 billion - "for private profit," she said.

"The Clark Fork River is the public trust," said Rep. Paul Clark, a Democrat who represents Sanders County in the Montana Legislature and whose district includes the proposed mine. "The public depends on the state to take care of that trust. That is our responsibility."

Clark criticized the Legislature for weakening state water-quality laws, and the mine's owners at Sterling Mining Co. for their lack of interest in the people of Sanders County. "Mining companies are not interested in the communities where they mine," he said. "They're only interested in the bottom line."

Sterling Mining chairman Frank Duval came to the project's defense late Monday by criticizing environmentalists for not inviting him to their Missoula news conference. The Rock Creek mine would not harm the Clark Fork River, he said. "That river is already polluted."

"From all the studies that I have seen, the proposed Rock Creek mine will not violate any state or federal laws, rules or regulations," Duval said. "If it were in violation, the state of Montana would not issue permits to build the mine. So we do not feel that we would violate any of those laws."

Duval has been criticized - and was again by Gilels at Monday's news conference - for his past involvement in failed mines at Bunker Hill in Kellogg, Idaho, and Zortman-Landusky in the Little Rocky Mountains of northcentral Montana.

In each case, he said, he was a shareholder and an investor, but not responsible for environmental problems or bankruptcy petitions.

There are no guarantees about how or when the Rock Creek mine will be developed, or if Sterling will remain as its owner, Duval said. "God almighty is the only one who can guarantee anything. We feel we will not violate any laws or regulations. Whether we are going to be in business, who knows. We hope to be successful in permitting and building it, and showing the citizens that we will not violate any laws or do anything to harm the Clark Fork River."

Unless metals prices improve, the mine will not be developed, Duval said. "It is a very good ore body. But there have to be metals prices high enough to create a situation where the ore could be mined at a profit. That might not turn out to be the case."

Environmentalists said they will continue their campaign to stop the project, and to insist that - if it is permitted - that all laws are enforced. "Folks in Sanders County do not want another failed mine," Clark said. "And they don't want a polluted river."

The Clark Fork is "kind of the mother of all our rivers here in western Montana," said outfitter and fishing guide John Herzer. "To see this mine proposed is really disturbing."

With the many river restoration projects planned on the upper river, the Clark Fork has the potential to provide a fishery as vaunted as those on Rock Creek or the Bitterroot or Blackfoot rivers, Herzer said. "I would like to take people here someday and help them catch a 3-foot-long bull trout. We could have hundreds of miles of great fishing, starting right here - in downtown Missoula."

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