The Proposed Rock Creek Mine
By Marcia Franklin
While many Idahoans have not heard of the proposed Rock Creek Mine, it’s been a concern for residents in north Idaho for decades.
People living near Sandpoint fear that effluent from the proposed mine, which would tunnel under the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness area in Montana just across the state line, would pollute Lake Pend Oreille. The lake, designated as “special resource water,” is one of the cleanest in the state, and one of the deepest lakes in the United States. It’s not only a draw for recreation and tourism, but towns around the lake use it for drinking water.
Revett Minerals, which now owns the mine site, and the U.S. Forest Service, which has approved a plan for it, insist that safeguards, such as a treatment plant, have been put in place to prevent problems. But opponents, including the Rock Creek Alliance in Sandpoint, have repeatedly sued the Forest Service over its decisions.
In addition to the pollution concern, they worry that the underground blasting will drain Cliff Lake, a high mountain lake above the mine, and that noise will disturb goats and bears in the area. There’s also a fear that road building will create sediment loads that will affect bull trout in the nearby Rock Creek. They also point to the safety record of Revett at its nearby mine in Troy, Montana, where a worker was killed in 2007.
Revett is waiting for the go-ahead to proceed with an exploratory hole, also called an “adit.” The Forest Service expects to issue that decision, and opponents say they will continue challenging the plan in court.
For more information on the project, see:
Rock Creek Alliance
U.S. Forest Service page on the proposed Rock Creek Mine
Here are some divergent views about the proposed mine:
Paul Bradford, Supervisor, Kootenai National Forest
Producer Marcia Franklin: How can somebody mine in a wilderness?
Paul Bradford, Supervisor, Kootenai National Forest: The mining property was identified before the 1964 Wilderness Act was enacted. The 1964 Act established the Cabinet Mountain wilderness but it also provided 20 years for mining proponents to evaluate their properties and establish whether or not there was a valuable mineral property.
In this case those proponents were able to establish their mineral rights before the time expired in 1984 and in that case we are then required to deal with those properties regardless of the fact that they happen to be under the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness.
Our mission is to find a way to work with proponents to access their properties in a way that is responsible and we can accept from an environmental management standpoint and that is what we believe we have done with this case.
Franklin: Do you feel that if the mine were there your children would still have a nice experience if they visited the area?
Bradford:I believe that in our proposal that we have worked to mitigate as many of the environmental impacts as possible and I believe that if somebody visits the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness they may very well not know that there would be a mine in the Rock Creek area.
The decisions are made in Montana, but people around Lake Pend Oreille could experience some negative consequences. Is there a way to make people in Idaho comfortable?
I can understand that folks in Idaho might have concerns. However, from our analysis we have looked carefully at the water quality issues and we believe that all those potential impacts have been mitigated, would be mitigated and we would continue to monitor and insure that there was not a problem that is being passed downstream.
The bonding requirements will be very stringent. There will be funds available we believe if there would be any kind of problem and that would include say, the company walking away from the project at some point.
Franklin: Some people feel that there are some last, best places that should not be disturbed, no matter what.
Bradford:I understand that some folks may not want change in any part of this national forest. The fact is that there is change going on every day in every part of the forest. Trees are growing, trees fall down. The fact is that in this case we have a mineral deposit where a company has a certain amount of private property interest that we in the Forest Service have to address and deal with their rights.
The Kootenai National Forest is a tremendous chuck of property that is owned by all the citizens of the United States of America. It is a wonderful piece of country and I cannot imagine as a responsible official at this point in my career taking any action that I feel would be detrimental to that.
In the case of the Rock Creek project we believe that as an agency we’ve got the best possible proposal and decision made at this point if the mine goes forward. It is yet to be seen.
Jim and Mary Costello, Rock Creek Alliance
Producer Marcia Franklin: Describe where the mine will be.
Jim Costello, Rock Creek Alliance: The Cabinet Mountains Wilderness is the only wilderness in the 2.2 million acre Kootenai National Forest. The Cabinet Mountains Wilderness has been a wilderness since 1964 with the original signing of the Wilderness Act. It received protection from the US Forest Service in 1935 so it for seventy some years has been recognized as a pristine environment and worth protecting and that’s why industrialization like the Rock Creek Mine has no place here.
Franklin: People are confused that you can mine in a wilderness area.
Jim: Back in the late 80’s when I first found out about the Rock Creek Mine and I heard about some of the options that the US Forest Service had I was very confident that the US Forest Service would step in and say, “You cannot do this. This is not an alternative, this is not an option.” Because that is what I always thought. This is federally protected wilderness. You can’t mine in a wilderness area. You can’t ride a bicycle in here but you can mine it.
It was just shocking that the agencies didn’t step up. And instead of us suing to stop it the mining company should be suing to try to get in here. The agency should have stepped in the way and said “No, you are not doing this.” But unfortunately the contrary is true. We have to sue to try to protect it.
Franklin: The law says that as long as the claims were patented before 1984, they are valid.
Mary Costello, Rock Creek Alliance: The 1872 Mining Law is an archaic law that needs to be reformed. A lot of the western politicians have stalled that reform. We’re talking about a law that is over 130 years old that was basically designed for mining when it was pick and shovel and it was not to the scale that we are looking at today. The mining industry pays no royalties, and we would like to see some provisions that will protect special places and would also give federal land managers the ability to say no if there are other values that are more important than the minerals in the land.
Jim: They follow the 1872 mining law while ignoring other federal laws. Because if they had originally looked at the Endangered Species Act and said, “Yes this is going to impact two threatened species, this cannot happen,” we wouldn’t be here today. But they did not do that. They always fall back and say, “The 1872 mining law does not give us the option,” which is not the case. There are other federal laws on the books besides the 1872 mining law that would stop this project.
Franklin: What about the buffer zone around the lake? Doesn’t that give you some comfort?
Jim: No, it doesn’t because all federal documentation says that they expect three million gallons of water a day to enter into this mine cavity and a thousand foot buffer is not going to protect this lake. So this lake could either be drained because of fracturing beneath us or it could be starved by a shortage of water feeding the lake.
Mary: We of course had a mining engineer look at this and basically go into the records and look at mining across the west and look at the incidences of subsidence, collapse with underground mining. It’s very common. His conclusions were that it is just basically a matter of time and that by using a thousand foot buffer - and that’s an arbitrary number – that all that does is delay the inevitable. There have been cases of lake straining. There was a lake in Colorado, Lake Emma, which had an underground mine and the lake actually drained. Fortunately it happened on a Sunday when there weren’t any miners in the underground mine.
Franklin: Do you think having the mine go in will make the road better and more accessible or detract people from coming here?
Mary: I think it is absolutely going to detract people from coming here because the wilderness will become an industrialized area. We will have major activity creating a lot of noise, light pollution, there is going to be a lot of traffic up and down the road, an influx of people. It’s not the kind of place where you are going to want to come for solitude. There aren’t going to be goats here. Wild life is going to be displaced from this area. It’s going to be rendered ineffective. It’s not a place that I would ever come if the mine was built.
Jim: It is not going to be an 8 to 5 project. It is going to run twenty-four/seven. For close to thirty years you are not going to be able to come in here at 6:00 in the evening and expect all the miners have gone home and the project is shut down. It is going to run around the clock.
Franklin: The company says the tailings are harmless.
Mary: There will be residual heavy metals because their recovery process isn’t 100% efficient. There is definitely going to be heavy metals that are going to flow from bottom of that tailings impoundment and eventually make their way into the Clark Fork River.
We’re talking about a discharge that in all likelihood is perpetual …and so we’re not just concerned about water quality standards on any given day. What we are really concerned about is the accumulation of toxins, of heavy metals in the lake over time. What happens to those metals? What is to keep Lake Pend Oreille from becoming like Lake Coeur d’Alene?
Franklin: Are you against mining?
Mary: We all use metals and I’m not against mining. I think it needs to be done in a responsible manner and the history of modern mining has not demonstrated that and I think there are certain places where mining should not happen, and in a federally protected wilderness with what is at risk here, threatened and endangered species, a wilderness area and Lake Pend Oreille, which is a jewel in itself that is deserving of protection. There is too much at stake and some places should not be mined.
Jim: I think when the Wilderness Act was written in 1964 I don’t think their intent was to have a federally protected wilderness mined.
Mary: The other issue too is the issue of perpetual pollution. I don’t think that we should ever permit a mine that is going to pollute in perpetuity. The owners of this mine are going to come and go, and any clean-up is going to be left to the citizens of this area. I don’t think that is a legacy we want to leave for our children.
Jim: Perpetual pollution is very frightening for downstream users. The maintenance on the facility, the maintenance on the pipes is going to have to continue for a hundred years or more and someone is going to have to maintain that.
Franklin: What about the grizzly bear mitigation plan?
Jim: The reality of grizzly bear mitigation is the grizzly bear will be displaced from over 7,000 acres in this region. It will be displaced. The Rock Creek mitigation will create no new habitat. That 7,000 acres will be gone. Their mitigation package – all that consists of is taking acreage to prevent future industrialization on other acreages.
Franklin: What is your concern about the road building?
Mary: It’s the sediment load that will go into Rock Creek. There have been a couple of different models that have been run by the agencies and one estimate, it was 400 tons a year and the other was 1,400 tons a year. Even if they mitigate by removing sediment from the stream at a later date most of this is going to come in during the five to seven year period and that is going to encompass the entire life cycle of bull trout.
Franklin: What is it like to work together 24/7?
Jim: Difficult at times. It is a very passionate issue. This is not just a job. We don’t do this because of the money, that is for sure. We do this because of the issue, the cause and it can get very passionate. The issue is so important to us but we’ve been able to balance it I think to a degree.
Mary: You have to be careful that you don’t always take it home but it’s not an eight to five job. We have to make a conscious effort sometimes to say, okay, we’re not going to talk about Rock Creek right now.
Franklin: Why are you so passionate about this?
Jim: There comes a point in time where you have to draw a line in the sand and say, not here, not across this border, not here and that’s what we decided. We’re never going to allow this to happen. We will continue to fight for as long as it takes.
Bill Orchow, Former CEO, Revett Minerals
Producer Marcia Franklin: What are the biggest misconceptions about the proposed mine?
Bill Orchow, Former CEO, Revett Minerals: One is we’re constructing this mess of tailings impoundment that is toxic right next to the Clark Fork River. It’s actually non-toxic. It’s silica, it’s beach sand; it’s just like the tailings impoundment that we have here at Troy. Here at Troy our tailings facility, at the closest place is about 500 feet next to Lake Creek, and we’ve never had any problems.
Another misconception is that we’re constructing an open pit gold mine that uses cyanide. Well, that’s completely opposite of what we’re doing here. It is going to be just like Troy – an underground copper silver mine that uses no bad toxic chemicals.
Another misconception is that we’re going to discharge into the Clark Fork River three million gallons a day of toxic processed water. Well, in effect we’re going to discharge treated water into the Clark Fork River. The water going into the treatment plant is drinking water quality and we won’t achieve three million gallons a day until about the twelfth or fifteenth year of mine production and that volume is only for the summer months of the snow melt. And in terms of what is coming down the Clark Fork versus what we put in of three million gallons, it’s a ratio of four thousand to one, so it’s a very small minute portion of what is in that Clark Fork River.
Franklin: Why do we need the Rock Creek Mine? Aren’t there enough mines already?
Orchow: The short answer to that is no. Mining is a means to an end. Mines mine many different things. In our case we’re mining silver and copper. The minerals are where they are. We didn’t place them, we didn’t determine where we want to be but if you believe that the society needs what we produce – in this case copper for electrical generation and those sorts of things – then it is important to mine.
It’s also important to be able to mine something that is environmentally sound and we don’t hurt the environment at the same time. Rock Creek happens to be an extremely clean deposit. There are no bad actors in the mineralization, it’s not an acid generating deposit and it can be mined with the environment in mind and there will be no harm to the environment or the wildlife.
Franklin: People say “Mining in a wilderness? I didn’t think that was allowed.” How can it happen?
Orchow: We’re really not mining in the wilderness. We’re mining under the wilderness. We never touch the surface of the wilderness. We will enter from underground, from outside the wilderness; we will be sufficiently deep under the surface that you would never know that we’re there.
The other reason that we’re able to do it is these deposits or these claims were found before the Wilderness Act and within the Wilderness Act there was a twenty year grandfathering for us to prove that there is mineralization there and to take ownership.
Franklin: People recreating in the area worry about noise.
Orchow: That complex will be out of the wilderness. Those lights will be out of the wilderness. It is sufficiently far away that there will be no disturbance.
Franklin: There’s also a concern that the blasting could affect Cliff Lake and drain it.
Orchow: It was determined that we would not disturb the lake, but as an additional measure of safety we are required to have a buffer zone of a thousand feet around the lake.
People know what happened to Lake Coeur d’Alene with pollution from mining tailings, and there are fears associated with that.
During the EIS process many, many studies were conducted and participation was not only the US Forest Service but the Montana DEQ and the Idaho DEQ were participants. They all saw the studies; they saw the results of those studies. I think we have provided some of them for you and in every case it shows that there is no degradation of that water. We are not allowed to degrade that water.
Franklin: What about grizzly bears?
Orchow: For grizzly bear we will be spending about two million dollars over a thirty year period in today’s dollars. A large portion of that is purchasing replacement grizzly bear habitat – 2400 acres, 2450 acres. We will be funding three positions full time. These are state positions – two biologists and an enforcement agent. We will be funding bear collars and the observation of bears and bear proof containers and education programs and if you were to go back and read the latest biological opinion that was produced by the US Fish and Wildlife Service the conclusion is that this is not only a mitigation plan but it goes a long way into recovery of the bear population.
Franklin: The road is a source of concern.
Orchow: My thought is these people are willing to raise any concern they have. I think the objective is to stop mining. It’s not the road, it’s not the sediment; it’s not the fish. How we got to this point I don’t know but people really just want to stop mining. But the road was considered in the EIS and all the various permitting and with the state. There is a sediment mitigation plan in place that was directly put into place because of the road - and if I’m not mistaken and you can go back and look at the documents – in the end we actually reduced sediments than put more sediments into the bull trout areas.
Franklin: What do you think of this process, which has taken so long?
Orchow: I think it doesn’t serve at this point our purpose to either criticize it or not criticize the process. I think that would certainly be interesting for the federal legislature or congress in one of the committees to investigate. Is the process working as it was intended? From our point of view, that’s the process we had to go through. This is approaching the longest that I have ever been involved. I have had one process in Wisconsin that was on private land that took 22 years and I thought that record would never be surpassed and I’m getting nervous here.
Franklin: Is it worth it to go through all that?
Orchow: If I knew 22 years ago that it was going to take this long would I go through it? I don’t have a good answer to that. I would have to think about it. But where I sit today and from where I came in I think it is worth it. This is a very good deposit in terms of what it is going to serve – copper and silver. There is a need for that, and as I said it is an extremely clean deposit. Too bad there isn’t more like this in the world that you could turn to and say, “hey we’re not going to have an impact on the environment and still serve the needs of the community and the world.”
So yeah, I think it is worth it. I’m in the mining business, I think mines are good. I think we have to go through the processes that are before us. And we have gone through the process and all the way it is determined that this will not jeopardize the environment.
Franklin: Does the 1872 Mining Law need to be modified?
Orchow: I think the only thing that I struggle with is the part with royalties--should there be a royalty? Some days I wake up and say probably, and some days I wake up and say no, but I think that’s the area, one of the main areas that needs to be modified or should be modified.
Franklin: Opponents get frustrated because they say the Forest Service places the 1872 Mining Law over environmental laws like the Clear Water Act.
Orchow: If the 1872 Mining Law took precedence, why am I in 22 years in the NEPA process? It just doesn’t seem to balance out, so I think that is incorrect.
Franklin: Opponents say you can’t be trusted because you had a death in the mine last year.
Orchow: I take strong objection to that. They make it sound like we went out and purposely had this fatal accident, and nothing is further from the truth. We were all affected by that and the whole community of this mine and all of us in Spokane. We take safety extremely seriously. The one thing that they never seem to want to talk about is a year before that accident…we had gone for one year without a lost time accident. In an underground mine with the level of experience that we have that’s an extremely exemplary record and we’re proud of it and should be proud of it.
Franklin: What is next? What is your prognosis?
Orchow: I’m an optimist and I’m certainly hoping that the judge will render an opinion shortly, that we’ll be able to get on the ground this season and begin the process. I think it won’t end there. I think there will be continuing challenges. We will have to show people that we can do what we said we did but at the end of the day I believe this is going to be a big success for everybody.
June Bergquist, Idaho DEQ
Producer Marcia Franklin: What would be the main concerns of Idaho DEQ about the proposed Rock Creek Mine?
June Bergquist, Idaho DEQ: We want to make sure that it doesn’t pollute Idaho waters and so that is our primary concern – that it be constructed well so that there are no failures of anything that may get into the river and go downstream eighteen miles and get into our waters.
We’re concerned with the discharge or process waters and that is predicted to be up to 2,300 gallons per day for thirty years or for a good number of years of mine operations and so we’re looking at the pollutants that come from all different sources. It’s not just the tailings after they are de-watered.
Franklin: What would be in discharge waters?
Bergquist: Certainly metals. In this case nitrates (from blasting agents) was a big issue because nitrates was the one detectable pollutant in the water that had to be further restricted by the mine in order to meet our water quality standards. We have some pretty tough standards to meet in the Clark Fork River. It is designated as a special resource water and that means that there is no lowering of water quality so anything that you discharge from a point source discharge like this mine, if we can measure that our water quality has been lowered by that discharge then that is illegal. We’re not going to allow anything to pollute that.
Franklin: As far as heavy metals, you don’t anticipate anything like that?
June Bergquist, Idaho DEQ: The Montana DEQ and us collaborated on the writing of the permit and we made sure that our rules were going to be adhered to by that discharge permit so no, there should not be any metals issues and if there are issues or predictions on what the mine is going to discharge were wrong there is a re-opener clause in the permit and we can stop the discharge at any time if it violates our water quality standards.
Franklin: But not in high levels as Silver Valley?
June Bergquist, Idaho DEQ: The Bunker Hill Super Fund here in Idaho resulted from a lot of different things. There was very poor regulation of how these different processes – the extraction, the milling, the smelting of these metals lead to great amounts of pollution being allowed into the environment and so those loop holes have been closed and believe me, during the writing of the EIS and negotiating with ASARCO at that time and trying to get a very environmentally protective mine we had all learned our lessons on these things and seen the results of some really bad, bad practices.
Franklin: Do you feel comfortable with the way the mine permit is at this time?
June Bergquist, Idaho DEQ: Obviously you don’t want any discharges into your waters when they are nice and clean but we have applied all the rules that can be applied to this discharge and they have met those stringent requirements and so that’s what we have.
Franklin: How important was it that Idaho be kept involved in decision-making?
June Bergquist, Idaho DEQ: I think one of the most important things that is yet to come up is the involvement of Idaho in the technical panels. And I think this is going to really help our agency and the Idaho public understand and be either alarmed or comfortable with how the mine is being operated, because these technical panels will be convened and they will either approve or disapprove of the mine’s plans for different designs.
Anything major that is going to be happening that really wasn’t practical to design in detail during EIS development is going to happen and we’re going to be on those panels.
John McKay, Geologist, U.S. Forest Service
Producer Marcia Franklin: The opponents say you put the 1872 Mining Law above environmental laws.
John McKay, Geologist, U.S. Forest Service: The only thing the 1872 Mining Law says is that you have the right to explore and develop but you have to meet the other laws as well. And so what we tell a proponent is, “Yes you have the right to develop this deposit but the only way you are going to be able to develop is to do it our way which is the selected alternative.” The proponent has the same right to file suit against us, to say this alternative that you select we don’t like.
Franklin: What about the mining tailings?
McKay: They don’t use cyanide, it is a completely different mining method. The rock type has different types of minerals in it than what you see in the Coeur d’Alene district, etc. The tails are different. Those tailings at Troy meet an EPA given test that makes them very clean. You can use those essentially to build concrete cinder blocks per se for housing. It is 99.9% sand.
Franklin: Does the US Forest Service ever reject a mine?
McKay: We actually reject the mine right from the very beginning when they put in their proposal and say “Hey, we cannot go forward with this project until we do a NEPA analysis and determine what the impacts are going to be and select an alternative that will meet those.” And so you get back into developing that alternative which meets those laws. Mining companies in today’s world I believe sit down with us realizing that it’s not the old school any more. You can’t just go out there and mine. They know they have to protect the environment.
State Senator Shawn Keough (R-District 1)
Producer Marcia Franklin: What are the feelings here about the Rock Creek Mine?
State Senator Shawn Keough (R-District 1): The people in the community around Sandpoint, around the lake overwhelmingly are opposed to the mine…because the lake means so much to them and it is so precious that they don’t want to ever consider any harm to it.
Franklin: Why is it so difficult to find people who are supportive?
Senator Keough: It is such an emotionally charged issue. Lake Pend Oreille is really the heart and soul of this community. It is so precious, it means so much, and words are hard to figure out that adequately describe the depth of the passion that Pend Oreille brings out in people. But because of that huge emotional attachment that everyone who lives here has for the lake, those who might be supportive of the mine are reluctant to say anything because when they do they are immediately ridiculed. Sometimes they are harassed and it is in a very negative and personal way and so they just choose to keep their opinions and what they believe to themselves, because it is not worth the controversy and the personal attacks that come.
Franklin: What is your major role?
Senator Keough: Lake Pend Oreille has been given the highest designation in the country and in the state as a special resource water and that calls for no degradation and it is a huge standard, a very high standard. And so as a state legislator my role is to make sure that our agencies are supported financially and have the staff they need and are doing the monitoring that is required to make sure that any degradation whether it be from the mine or any other activity on the lake does not occur.
Franklin: Do you have any concerns?
Senator Keough: Lake Pend Oreille is too great a resource to risk, and all the questions need to be answered as to whether or not the water quality for Pend Oreille can be protected. And until that can happen in a way that the people of this community can support that, it is very difficult as a decision-maker to say I am for the mine, because those questions remain in the minds of the people that I’ve been elected to represent and the majority of the people feel that the risk is too great.
Franklin: Do you think people understand where the things that they like come from?
Senator Keough: We have a disconnect between the products that we use in our daily lives and where they come from. It is a disconnect that is growing the more our population grows, the more urbanized we become, the more distant we become from our rural areas – be it farming, be it mining, be it logging. Because our society today is such that you go to the store and buy those products, people have become disconnected about that and don’t stop to think, “what is in that computer, what is in that house, what is in the daily products that we use?”