News of the West

KALISPELL, Mont. (AP) — The federal government has approved the first phase of a proposed copper and silver mine in northwestern Montana, But it won’t consider approving full development of the operation until later.

The U.S. Forest Service plans to allow Hecla Mining Co., based in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, to build an entrance for the Rock Creek Mine and conduct an environmental evaluation, the Flathead Beacon reported Friday.

The mine would be near Noxon, Montana, about 10 miles from the Idaho border. It would extend under the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness Area.

A coalition of conservation groups fighting the new mine said it could drain water from surface streams in the wilderness area, harming fish and wildlife.

“All the evidence to date shows that these mines cannot be excavated under the Wilderness without lasting harm to the overlying streams and the fish and wildlife that find refuge there,” said Bonnie Gestring of Earthworks, one of the opponents.

Hecla officials said the mine won’t damage the wilderness area.

The conservation groups said the Forest Service decision was a setback for the project, but Hecla said it was always planning on getting the mine approved in steps.

“It’s business as usual for us,” said Luke Russell, vice president of external affairs for the company.

The Forest Service said the effect of the mine on surface water cannot be determined until more studies are done or work gets underway.

“While models and estimates of groundwater conditions can be developed based on the best available information, actual knowledge of underground conditions may not be fully known, or knowable, until underground operations are underway and additional data can be collected,” Deputy Regional Forester David E. Schmid wrote in an Oct. 31 letter announcing the phase one approval.

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