Smith River, Montana | Photo: Pat Clayton [fisheyeguyphotography.com]

Hidden in a deep canyon amongst central Montana’s forested mountains, the Smith River is a treasured destination for paddlers and anglers alike. Unfortunately, this legendary trout stream is in danger of permanent degradation from a proposed copper mine. The State of Montana must require the mining company, Tintina Resources, to prove beyond any doubt that their operation will produce no acid mine drainage or cause any environmental harm to the Smith River or its tributaries before the project is allowed to proceed.

About The River

The Smith River flows for 6o miles through a stunning limestone canyon between the Little Belt and Big Belt Mountains, emptying into the Missouri River just upstream of Great Falls, Montana.

Smith River bend | Photo: Pat Clayton [fisheyeguyphotography.com]

It is home to thriving populations of brown and rainbow trout, with a remnant population of native westslope cutthroat trout in Tenderfoot Creek, one of its most pristine tributaries. Among the wildlife that frequent the Smith River corridor are bald and golden eagles, osprey, black bear, moose, elk, and mule and whitetail deer.

Owing to its gentle currents and good road access at either end, the Smith is one of the few multi-day river trips in Montana that provides floaters of all ability levels with opportunities for backcountry solitude, superb fishing and stellar camping. In fact, the float down the Smith River is so popular that it is Montana’s only permitted river. In 2015, 8,096 people applied for just 1,175 float permits. Recreational fishing and floating generate an estimated $10 million annually in revenue for outfitters and surrounding communities.

The Threat

Tintina Resources Inc., a Canadian mining company controlled by Australia-based Sandfire Resources, is proposing to develop a copper mine underneath and directly adjacent to Sheep Creek, a major headwater stream that produces half of the tributary-spawning trout in the Smith River drainage and is a critical source of instream flows. The so-called Black Butte Copper Project would be located approximately 20 miles north of White Sulphur Springs. Within Montana, Tintina is touting the project as a modest-sized underground mine with an 11 to 14 year operating life that will bring jobs to White Sulphur Springs. However, to its out-of-state investors, Tintina is touting the potential for dramatically expanding the project and creating a “50-year mining district.”

Tintina claims the mine site is home to the, “third highest-grade copper deposit in North America.”

However, removing the copper from the ground poses serious environmental risks. First, the copper lies in a massive sulfide-ore body, which, when exposed to air and water, can produce acid mine drainage. There is also the likelihood that the mine will leach toxic heavy metals such as copper into nearby surface waters, produce discharges of wastewater high in nitrates that result from the use of blasting compounds, and contaminate drinking water sources with arsenic. Finally, groundwater would have to be pumped from the mine, which could end up partially dewatering Sheep Creek or its tributaries, thus drying up trout habitat.

Mining has left a toxic legacy in many of Montana’s rivers for over a century. Among the rivers that have borne the brunt of historical mining impacts are the Big Blackfoot of A River Runs Through It fame and the Clark Fork, 120 miles of which is designated as the nation’s largest Superfund site due to contamination by toxic heavy metals. The cost to clean up the Clark Fork River alone is estimated at over $1 billion and is expected to last 20 years. Modern mines have also taken their toll on local streams, and their legacy is found in publically funded multi-million dollar cleanups that are occurring, or must occur, at mines throughout Montana that have been shuttered in recent years, including: Zortman-Landusky near Malta, Beal Mountain near Anaconda, Kendall near Lewistown, Basin Creek south of Helena, and possibly the Troy Mine near the Kootenai River.

What Must Be Done

Tintina submitted its mine permit application to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in December 2015. That application triggered a completeness review, which the state concluded in March 2016. The completeness review, supplemented with a review by a team of independent experts, found that Tintina failed to provide sufficient information about fisheries, surface and groundwater flows, the discharge potential of effluent from the mine and long-term treatment of mine tailings. The permit application also failed to divulge the full scope of the proposed mining activity in the area over the next 50 years. Before the State of Montana agrees to proceed with an environmental impact statement, it must order Tintina to furnish the information that was missing from its permit application.

In the bigger picture, Montana Governor Steve Bullock must send a clear signal to Tintina that for its Black Butte Copper Project to win state approval, it must be designed using standards never before required of mines in Montana due to the industry’s legacy of repeated failures. Any mine approved in the Smith’s headwaters must ensure with 100 percent certainty that it will not degrade water quality or the wild trout fishery in the river or its tributaries. This high bar must be established now, while the project is still in the planning phases. The Smith River is not the right place for a mining experiment based on unsubstantiated promises.

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