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Attempted Murder or Bad Hunting? Debate Rages Over Montanore Mine in Libby

Debate over the proposed Montanore Mine near Libby, Mont., officially turned up a notch in November and continues to rage with accusations of attempted murder — which are thin gruel at best.

James Cleveland was walking on his property off Libby Creek Road on November 16, minding his own business, when he was shot in the leg by Michael Wagner. Wagner was the very model of an irresponsible hunter that day, allegedly shooting a deer illegally on Libby Creek Road, blowing by a No Trespassing sign on Cleveland’s property while following a blood trail, and then shooting Cleveland after mistaking him for the wounded deer. If true, it’s one of the more breathtaking abuses of hunting privileges seen in recent years in Montana and should merit more than just three misdemeanors. (Wagner has pleaded not guilty to all charges.)

But for the Alternative One group, the incident was much, much more than just a boneheaded move by someone charged with negligent endangerment, unlawful hunting from a public highway and failure to obtain landowner permission for hunting. It was a case where an outspoken opponent of the proposed Montanore Mine in Libby was shot by an out-of-work miner, a case calling for a federal investigation into Montanore Mine and an alleged coverup by Lincoln County Sheriff Roby Bowe and other government agencies. Like many conspiracy theories, it relies on a large group of people covering up their involvement, and facts that would seem to contradict the conspiracy — like the fact that Wagner worked to help Cleveland and drove him to meet an ambulance — are taken to prove the conspiracy.

There’s only one problem with the coverup: James Cleveland, the man who was shot and is currently undergoing treatment in Denver to fix a shattered femur, says none of it is true. The Missoulian’s Vince Devlin tracked down Cleveland for his take on the shooting. Cleveland, who has issues with the Montanore Mine but isn’t necessarily opposed to the project, says the shooting was an accident, pure and simple:

“The real issue is I’m missing 3 inches of my right femur,” Cleveland told the Missoulian from his hospital room in a telephone interview last week. “I’ll have orthopedic surgery in a month to address that. They’ll take a piece off my left hip, fashion it into a facsimile of a femur, attach it with bolts and screws and let it grow back together.”…

“If Mr. Wagner were out to kill me, he wouldn’t have taken me halfway to the hospital,” says Cleveland, who was met by an ambulance and transported the rest of the way after the shooting. “He would have turned and walked away, and I’d be dead.”

“I don’t think there’s any cover-up on the part of the sheriff’s department, and I don’t think there’s any weird stuff going on here,” Cleveland says. “I think the facts speak for themselves. I don’t believe this conspiracy theory, that someone was paid by mine management to kill me. People who have that view are kidding themselves.”

Now, all of this is a sideshow to the real issue: whether the proposed Montanore silver and copper mine should move forward and, if so, under what conditions. All across the country, proposed mines are encountering serious levels of opposition, whether it’s the proposed Gogebic Taconite mine in northern Wisconsin or a proposed PolyMet copper mine in northern Minnesota. History has not been kind to the mining industry, as people remember both the environmental and economic dangers of mining. Still, mining companies have one powerful argument: there will be jobs created by mining. Maybe not as many jobs as in the past (today, mining is a highly automated process), and maybe not paying as well as in the past, but there will be jobs. That’s a powerful argument in what is still an economically depressed area of Montana.

But there’s much more to mine opposition in Libby than just general opposition. The feelings there are still raw about the vermiculite mine operated by W.R. Grace & Co., which left the town contaminated with a uniquely dangerous form of asbestos. It’s been less than five years since the city received $6 million in a federal health-care grant to deal with the extraordinary number of people in the area who suffer from asbestos-related diseases.

And there is some serious opposition to the mine from environmental organizations. The National Wildlife Federation argues that the mine, which would affect the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness area, would have two profound impacts on the wilderness area and its watershed:

  • Extensive dewatering due to underground excavation, depleting groundwater in the region and potentially decimating bull trout populations. The impacts of dewatering would be particularly severe along the East Fork of Bull River, the most productive bull trout fishery in the Lower Clark Fork River Bull Trout Recovery Area. All trout species in the watershed would be impacted by the introduction of sediment and heavy metals into local spawning streams as a byproduct of the mining process.
  • Construction of a tailings reservoir in the Upper Kootenai River watershed capable of containing 120 million tons of mining waste in perpetuity. The tailings dam would eventually be 10,300 feet long, 360 feet high (110 feet taller than the Fort Peck dam), and have a footprint of over 600 acres. Tailings and other mining waste would be dumped directly into the streams, jurisdictional wetlands, and springs located within the impoundment.

Mines Management, the firm proposing Montamore Mine, estimates there are 230 million ounces of silver and nearly 2 billion pounds of copper that can potentially be captured. The mine is still in the permitting process; look for more opposition to rise if that process moves forward.

RELATED STORIES: Libby, Montana’s Effort to Shake ‘Stigma’ Takes a Hit; AP: Feds Knew Wood Piles Could Further Contaminate Libby, Montana; Baucus and Sebelius Find Out There’s More to Libby Than Asbestos

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