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Kootenai Valley Record. Photo by Kootenai Valley Record.
Kootenai Valley Record
Montanore project still slogging ahead
by Brent Shrum, Kootenai Valley Record
April 1, 2010

Mines Management Inc. is still slogging ahead on its Montanore silver-copper project under the Cabinet Mountains, although regulatory "speed bumps" continue to pop up and delay progress, company president Glenn Dobbs reported during a community luncheon last Tuesday in Libby.

Dobbs said he remains confident that the mine will eventually be permitted, but "Iím not confident in our ability to do it quickly now."

The U.S. Forest Service had planned to issue a record of decision for the project this July, but Dobbs estimated that the earliest the ROD could now be issued at late this year or early 2011.

"If EPA has their way, it will be delayed another year beyond that," he said.

The Montanore project was fully permitted under Noranda Minerals in 1993, but falling metals prices led the company to mothball the project. Mines Management acquired the project in 2002, and in 2006 reopened the 14,000-foot adit for rehabilitation and exploration under two existing permits that had initially been issued to Noranda.

Mines Management has built offices, a warehouse facility and a water treatment plant at the mine site, and $10 million worth of equipment is sitting idle after rehabilitation and exploration activities were stopped last year at the request of the Forest Service, Dobbs said.

While the company holds that the work being done was allowed under the existing state permits, the Forest Service considered the work to be mining and not permissible, Dobbs said. The company cut its local workforce from about two dozen employees to four or five, Dobbs said.

Permitting issues with state authorities were resolved in 2008 when Mines Management withdrew its application for new permits and substituted revisions to the existing permits, Dobbs said.

"Montanaís not the problem," he said. "Montana considers the project to be substantially permitted."

A draft environmental impact statement was released for public comment last spring. Most of the comments submitted during a hearing in Libby were positive, Dobbs noted.

"That made quite an impression on the regulatory agencies," he said.

Remaining issues with federal agencies include the location of the mineís tailings impoundment, the route for power lines to the project, and a consultation between the Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on impacts to grizzly bear habitat.

"As a company we really donít care" about the location of the tailings impoundment, Dobbs said. "Because it doesnít really affect the economics of the project, at least as itís being talked about right now."

The issue of the power lines could be resolved by blending two of the existing alternatives, but that could result in a requirement for a supplemental environmental impact statement, Dobbs said.

"I donít need to tell you what that means," he said. "It means another year, just for a supplemental environmental impact statement for that little change."

Dobbs said he expects the biological consultation to take a total of two to three years to complete. The problem is that no one really knows how many bears are in the Cabinets, he said.

To date, Mines Management has spent $3.2 million directly on the EIS, plus another $4 million in related costs, Dobbs said.

When permitting issues are finally resolved, the project will put 500 to 600 people to work during initial construction, and once itís in full production the mine will employ around 300 for 25 to 30 years, Dobbs said.

Dobbs praised Gov. Brian Schweitzer for his support of the project.

"Gov. Schweitzer has been quite helpful to us," he said. "Weíve been very pleased at the way heís taken an interest in the project."

Kootenai National Forest Supervisor Paul Bradford has likewise been an ally, Dobbs said.

"We consider him to be a friend of the project, a friend of the community," he said.

Dobbs urged those in attendance at the meeting to contact the governorís office, regional Forest Service and Environmental Protection Agency offices, and members of Montanaís congressional delegation with their concerns about the importance of the project for the local and state economy.

Editorís Note: See the March 30, 2010 edition of the Kootenai Valley Record for the printed version of this story. The Kootenai Valley Record publishes once a week, on Tuesdays, in Libby, Montana. They are a locally owned community newspaper, located at 403 Mineral Avenue in Libby. For in-county and out-of-county subscription information, call 406-293-2424, or e-mail kvrecord@gmail.com.

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