Rock Creek Mine takes a big step forward

The Rock Creek Mine project took an important step forward last month when the United States Forest Service released the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) and draft Record of Decision (ROD) for the long-awaited project. The mine was acquired by Hecla Mining Company as part of their June 2015 purchase of Revett Mining Company.

The draft ROD provides for a two-phase approach to the project. The first phase of the project, the evaluation phase, will include the construction of an evaluation adit, or tunnel, from the surface to the ore body located under the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness. The adit entrance will be constructed on Hecla property outside the wilderness boundary and run under the wilderness area without interrupting the surface environment.

During the evaluation phase, Hecla will evaluate the ore zone in the Chicago Peak ore block and compare that data with previously-collected drill hole information from the same area. The company will also evaluate the Copper Lake Fault and obtain additional data about the strike, dip, and offset of the fault. Other data to be collected by the company during the evaluation phase includes rock mechanics, hydrologic and geochemical data, and bulk ore samples for metallurgical testing.

The information obtained during the evaluation phase will be analyzed by the Forest Service and other regulatory agencies, and compared to the assumptions made in the scientific models. The Forest Service will use that data to supplement, confirm, refine, and/or modify the Final SEIS as needed prior to allowing the company to proceed with the second phase, construction of the actual underground mine.

“The KNF (Kootenai National Forest) will assess whether the new data will require substantial revisions to the analyses conducted in support of the selected alternative that are relevant to environmental concerns,” Forest Supervisor Chris Savage wrote in the draft ROD. “The KNF will conduct additional NEPA analysis if the evaluation adit data indicated the need for substantial changes in the selected alterative that are relevant to environmental concerns or identify or constitute significant new circumstances or information relevant to environmental concers and bearing on the proposed action, as required by 40 CFR 1502.9[c][1].”

The draft ROD includes several key requirements that must be completed prior to the initiation of the evaluation phase of the project. The requirements include the preparation and approval of an updated Plan of Operations for the evaluation phase and the implementation of several monitoring and mitigation programs to ensure compliance with the KNF’s selected alternative.

The Rock Creek project dates back more than 30 years. The first Plan of Operations and application for a hard rock mining permit was filed by ASARCO in 1987. The first draft EIS was issued in 1995, with a supplemental EIS coming in 1998.

The project was purchased from ASARCO by Sterling Mining Company in 1999, which eventually transferred the asset to RCR, a subsidiary of Revett Mining Company. The 2015 acquisition of Revett by Hecla resulted in the mine becoming a Hecla asset.

The project has been hampered by litigation since before 2000. In 2010, United States District Judge Donald Molloy remanded the 2001 FEIS back to the Forest Service for additional action and voided the 2003 ROD.

The court found the Forest Service’s 2001 FEIS failed to clearly require adequate sediment source reduction measures during the evaluation phase of the project. Molloy also ruled the agency did nt properly consider information about bull trout populations and habitat and failed to show Riparian Habitat Conservation Areas clearly enough to determine potential impacts.

The new Final SEIS was drafted in response to that remand.

The release of the SEIS and draft ROD triggers a 45-day objection period in which eligible commenters may submit written objections to the Objection Reviewing Officer. Issues raised in this objection phase must be based on previously submitted, timely, specific written comments regarding the project. New objections may also be considered if the issue is based upon new information.

The Forest Service will evaluate the received objections and then issue a Final Record of Decision for the project.