BILLINGS, Mont. — A gold exploration proposal just north of Yellowstone National Park has suffered a significant setback with a court ruling released Friday that faulted Montana officials for understating mining's potential harm to land, water and wildlife.
The ruling from a state district judge means the Montana Department of Environmental Quality would have to conduct a lengthy environmental review before Lucky Minerals can proceed.
The Canadian company received approval last year to begin exploration work at 23 locations in Emigrant Gulch, a picturesque area of steep mountains and dense forest in southcentral Montana's Paradise Valley. The results of the exploration work were intended to guide the company's future plans to pursue a commercial-scale mine.
Environmental groups sued over the project last year on behalf of local residents, who are concerned mining could reduce tourism and pollute the nearby Yellowstone River.
Gilbert agreed with the environmentalists' assertion that state officials gave too much deference to the company in their consideration of the project and ignored evidence that water supplies could be damaged.
The agency also should have looked more closely at the project's effects on grizzly bears and wolverines and considered the broader implications if Lucky Minerals expands onto federal lands, Gilbert said.
Attorneys for Lucky Minerals had argued in court documents that its application was for a minor exploration project, not a large-scale mine.
But Judge Brenda R. Gilbert said that under federal mining law, the company's exploration work could be used to leverage a right to extract minerals from beneath public lands, leaving the state unable to prevent their development.
"The granting of the exploration license does set a precedent that would commit the department to the future action of allowing mining," Gilbert wrote.
Lucky Minerals Vice-President Shaun Dykes did not immediately respond to email and telephone messages seeking comment.
State officials were reviewing the decision, said Department of Environmental Quality spokeswoman Kristi Ponozzo said. She declined to say if an appeal was being considered.
An attorney for the groups behind the lawsuit — the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and Park County Environmental Council — said Gilbert's ruling validates worries about mining.
"Industrializing these special landscapes is no small matter and would cause significant harm to the value these lands provides for Park County's human and wildlife inhabitants," said attorney Jenny Harbine.
Matthew Brown, The Associated Press