The economy of south Lincoln County has historically been one of booms and busts. In the heyday of timber and mining, Libby and Troy were flush with jobs, packed full of working men and women building futures for their families. As timber jobs declined and mines closed, the area entered the bust cycle, with large numbers of miners and loggers put out of work and a general decline in other businesses dependent upon the dollars spent by those workers.
The long-awaited Montanore Mine, for many, represented the hope of bringing back at least a part of the previous economic strength of natural resources work in Lincoln County. Now, with the acquisition of the mine and its parent company, Mines Management, by Hecla Mining, those hopes are closer to fruition than ever before.
Hecla executives Luke Russell, vice president of external affairs, and Doug Stiles, general manager of both of Hecla’s recently-acquired Montana operations, Revett Silver and Mines Management, toured Lincoln County last week and sat down for a candid conversation with The Montanian to discuss the company’s history and commitment to northwest Montana.
Hecla, Russell said, is a company with 125 years of mining experience. The company, based in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, has operations in Idaho, Alaska, Canada, and Mexico, in addition to its recent Montana acquisitions, Montanore and the Rock Creek project in neighboring Sanders County.
During the conversation, Russell stressed Hecla’s commitment to building partnerships with the communities in which the company operates. The mine, he said, while helping re-energize the local economy, should be viewed as a means to an end and not an end in itself.
“What’s important here is that we don’t create a dependency on the mine,” he said. “It should be used as a way to build an economic foundation for what the community wants to be. It’s a bridge to the future.”
Russell said he envisions a partnership in which mine employees and management become integral components of the Lincoln County communities.
“They’ll become members of community organizations, serve on school boards and coach little league teams,” he said. “We empower our people to help with the communities and we hope the communities are ready and willing to engage with us. We need the community members to have open dialogue with us about any issues or concerns they may have with the mine.”
Russell pointed to Hecla’s operation at its Greens Creek Mine in Alaska as an example of what the communities of south Lincoln County can expect from a partnership with Hecla. At Greens Creek, Hecla has implemented a number of job training and education-related programs. Through one of those programs, Greens Creek now employs two diesel mechanics who had their first exposure to mining operations through an elementary school field trip program. The two served internships and job-shadowed at the mine during junior high and high school, then went on to college and returned to the mine as diesel mechanics.
Russell said Hecla is taking the same long-view approach to the projects in Lincoln and Sanders counties.
“Because of the company’s long-lived assets, Hecla has developed a long-term view,” he said. “Both Montanore and Rock Creek are long-term projects and we’ll be here for the long term. What we ask is ‘what can we do to help these communities become what they want to be.’”
Part of the company’s long-term view, Russell said, means establishing realistic expectations about development, construction, and production at the mines. The United States Forest Service issued its Record of Decision for Montanore earlier this year, but much work remains to be completed before the mine can enter the evaluation phase.
The first step, Russell said, is for the company to update the mine’s plan of operations. The record of decision selected a preferred alternative for the mine’s future development. The alternative selected requires the company to update the plan to meet the requirements of the record of decision. Russell said he anticipates about eight to nine months of work before the evaluation phase of the project can begin.
The evaluation phase of the project, he said, is expected to take two to three years. It will include repairing roads and ensuring they don’t slough off into streams and other waterways, extending the Libby adit by an additional 3,000 feet, dewatering the existing adit, and updating the facility’s water treatment plant.
Assuming the data collected during the evaluation phase meets the expectations outlined in the plan of operations and record of decision, the mine would then enter the construction phase. Construction on the mine facilities is expected to take another two to three years and generate approximately 600 jobs during that time. Once built and operational, the mine is expected to employ approximately 350 full-time employees and has an anticipated life cycle of roughly 30 years.