MISSOULA, Mont. (CN) - U.S. Forest Service approval of a 30-year-long mining project puts threatened populations of bull trout, grizzly bears and water resources at even greater risk, and could despoil a wilderness area for a century, environmentalists say in court.
Save Our Cabinets, Earthworks and the Clark Fork Coalition sued the Forest Service in Federal Court on Friday. They claim its approval of a 20-year, 20,000 tons-per day copper and silver mine would defile Montana's Cabinet Mountains Wilderness Area in northwest Montana.
Montanore Minerals Corp. wants to mine just below and next to the wilderness area.
The Forest Service authorized a five-year evaluation and construction phase, followed by an anticipated 20-year operations phase, and an additional 10 years or more for "closure" and "post-closure" operations.
Some of the operations will be inside the wilderness area, the environmentalists say.
"Project operations within and outside the Wilderness Area contain some of the last remaining undeveloped habitat for imperiled populations of bull trout and grizzly bears in the region, designated as threatened with extinction under the Endangered Species Act," according to the 100-page complaint.
Trout and grizzly bears are not the only species at risk. "These lands also contain some of the best remaining remote and wild habitat in the contiguous United States for lynx, westslope cutthroat trout, harlequin duck, wolverines, mountain goats and other threatened, endangered and sensitive plant and animal species," the complaint states.
The Cabinet Mountains Wilderness Area, created by Congress in 1964 in Montana's extreme northwest corner, is an integral part of the Kootenai and Kaniksu National Forests. The roughly 97,000-acre expanse is remote and picturesque, with glaciated peaks, forested valleys and pristine rivers and lakes, two of which - Rock Lake and St. Paul Lake - are above the mine.
Save our Cabinets says the integrity of one of the country's most beautiful and "untrammeled" areas will be spoiled if the Forest Service doesn't take heed of its own environmental analysis.
"As authorized by the Forest Service ROD, the Montanore Project would construct and operate approximately 14 miles of high-voltage electric transmission line, waste rock storage facilities, a wastewater treatment plant, wastewater holding and seepage collections ponds, pipelines for transporting water and mine tailings, a 600-plus acre, 120 million ton tailings waste storage facility, as well as pave and widen approximately 13 miles of roads, all with associated clear-cutting of trees and vegetations," according to the complaint.
Despite all this, Save Our Cabinets says, the Forest Service issued a Record of Decision approving the mine based on a Final Environmental Impact Statement and Joint Final Environmental Impact Statement issued by the Kootenai National Forest in March 2015.
The project will require massive groundwater pumping, and/or "dewatering" of lakes and streams of more than 194 million gallons of water per year: more than 4 billion gallons of water removed from the area over 22 years.
More than 400 million gallons will be needed during the construction phase alone. Fisheries, including macroinvertebrate populations, will be significantly affected and natural streams may dry up and take decades to recover, if at all, in violation of Montana water quality laws, according to the complaint.
"Adverse impacts to the local and regional environment resulting from the project's dewatering of the aquifer (to keep the mine workings dry) are predicted to last for hundreds of years," the complaint states.
"The pre-project hydrologic water balance of the area will never recover. The project's dewatering will result in the complete elimination or significant reduction in flows in streams and lakes within and downstream from the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness Area. These flow reductions are prohibited under Montana water quality laws and regulations, yet were authorized by the Forest Service ROD."
The groups say approval of the project violates the Forest Service Organic Act, the National Forest Management Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
They ask the court to set aside the approvals and "enjoin the Forest Service from allowing, authorizing or approving mining or mining related operations in reliance on the ROD and JFEIS until the Forest Service has complied with the Organic Act, NFMA, NEPA and APA [Administrative Procedures Act] and their implementing regulations." They also seek costs, expenses and attorneys' fees.
They are represented by Kristine Akland in Missoula and by Roger Flynn and Jeffrey Parsons with the Western Mining Action Project, in Lyons, Colo.
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