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Montana Supreme Court blocks permit for proposed copper mine

by Associated Press
| November 19, 2020 12:00 PM

MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) — The Montana Supreme Court has ruled that a proposed silver and copper mine must seek new permission from the state to continue pursuing a mineral deposit near Libby.

The four-member majority led by Justice Ingrid Gustafson released the decision Tuesday saying the Montanore project on the border of the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness could not rely on a 30-year-old water quality permit granted to a bankrupt company, the Missoulian reported.

Gustafson said the Department of Environmental Quality's use of an expired 1992 order was unlawful and rejected because "Montana courts do not defer to incorrect or unlawful agency decisions."

Justice Jim Rice dissented, arguing he thought the permit question wasn't discussed enough to warrant overturning 14 years of current work on the mine and its permits.

Mine owners Hecla Mining Co. and its subsidiary Montanore Minerals Corp. must now seek a new review and permit application if they wish to pursue the project.

Noranda Minerals Inc. started the Montanore mine in 1989 and got a water pollution permit from the state in 1992. However, it stopped working on the project in 1991 and a state court found in 1993 that Noranda had violated the Montana Clean Water Act, fined it and ordered it to seek new permits.

Noranda got a new permit in 1997 and applied for a renewal in 2001, but a year later the company decided to abandon the project and tried to relinquish its water discharge permits. The Department of Environmental Quality instead ordered the permits to remain active while Noranda cleaned up its site.

Mines Management Inc. submitted proposals in 2005 for resuming the project and got a renewed DEQ water discharge permit in 2006. It got another renewal in 2017 for an enlarged discharge operation, and several environmental groups challenged the plan in court. A Montana District Court judge agreed in 2019, vacating the new pollution permits.

"We were really surprised DEQ continued to push this 30-year-old permit through," said Bonnie Gestring, of Earthworks, a conservation organization that challenged the Montanore mine permit. "It was issued to a company after the previous company had abandoned the mine and moved on. The court issued a clear directive to the agency that it violated the Montana Water Quality Act with this pollution permit."

Hecla Vice President Luke Russell expressed her disappointment with the ruling on Wednesday and said Hecla would continue to pursue new permits with the department.

"We think Justice Rice in his dissent got it right. The permit was not challenged when the renewal was made in 2006, 14 years ago. Reclamation is part of a mining plan of operations. That was still going on and economic conditions changed. It's not uncommon for mining to continue," Russell said.