MISSOULA, Mont. (CN) - A massive mining project will destroy the landscape and divert and pollute water from creeks in a pristine Montana mountain chain and wilderness, a placer mining company claims in a lawsuit against the federal government.
Libby Placer Mining Co. sued the U.S. Forest Service on Tuesday in Federal Court. Placer mining involves panning for gold or digging in small pockets, rather than the massive earth extraction that characterizes most copper mines.
Environmental groups sued the government last week in a similar challenge to approvals for the Montanore silver and copper mine. Montanore Minerals Corp. wants to mine 20,000 tons of rock a day for 20 years next to the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness Area in northwest Montana.
Libby, Mont. is a town of 2,628 where the Cabinet Mountains meet the Kootenai River. The area has been mined for more than a century, though not extensively. The heaviest mining came in the 1930's when the Libby Mining Co. bought several private claims and installed hydraulic mining equipment and flumes on Howard and Libby Creeks.
Today the creeks are part of the Libby Creek Recreational Gold Panning Area, 23 miles south of Libby in the Kootenai National Forest, where the public may pan for gold and keep what it finds.
Libby Mining says Montanore's giant underground copper and silver mine, directly adjacent to Libby's property, will decimate the area for decades to come.
"LMPC owns 1,070 acres of land to the east of the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness Area and adjacent to the Montanore Project," the company says in its complaint. "Libby Creek, which runs through LPMC property for three miles, is classified as high quality waters. Additionally, the Libby Creek Road, FS Road 231, runs through LPMC property. The area is heavily timbered. Plaintiff has two cabins on the property, and the property is regularly used throughout the spring, summer and fall."
It is not clear from the lawsuit whether Libby Mining Co. still holds any mining interests, public or private, in the area.
The Montanore project, just 300 feet west of Libby Mining's property, is expected to last for 20 years, plus at least 10 more years of post-mining activity. Libby Mining says will it will dry up creeks and other water resources, endangering already threatened populations of bull trout.
Montanore Minerals is not a party to the lawsuit. Libby Placer claims the Forest Service violated state law, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Forest Service Organic Administration Act and the Administrative Procedures Act when it issued its Record of Decision, based on a Final Environmental Impact Statement and Joint Final Environmental Impact Statement, authorizing the project.
The conservation groups Save Our Cabinets, Earthworks and Clark Fork Coalition sued the government on nearly identical claims on April 1.
They said the project will devastate the area, with "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, [and will] pave and widen approximately 13 miles of roads, all with associated clear-cutting of trees and vegetations."
Libby Mining asks the court to vacate the Forest Service's Record of Decision, Final Environmental Impact Statement and Joint Final Environmental Impact Statement, and to remand with instructions that if Montanore reapplies, it must abide by the National Environmental Policy Act and maintain a 2,000-foot buffer between tailings impoundment sites and Libby Mining's property.
Libby Placer's attorney David Wilson Jr., with Morrison Sherwood Wilson & Deola in Helena, did not return a phone call or immediately reply to an email Wednesday.
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