Will a new copper mine risk Montana’s Smith River?

A group of conservation organizations have challenged the mine’s operating permit in court.

 

The Smith River in Montana is popular with recreationists. Each year more than 10,000 people apply for one of 900 or so permits to boat the lazy 59-mile float.
This story is published with the Guardian as part of their series, This Land is Your Land, examining the threats facing America’s public lands, with support from the Society of Environmental Journalists

Annick Smith was one of the lucky ones. This year, the 84-year-old writer and documentary film-maker took her first trip down the Smith River in western Montana.

A lazy 59-mile float through deep limestone canyons, green meadows and pine forests that support the best brown trout fishery in the state, the Smith River is so popular it requires a lottery, the only one of its kind in Montana, to keep its fans from loving it to death.

“It was on my bucket list and it didn’t disappoint. And it inspired me even more to protect this river from the mine that could destroy it.”

Each year more than 10,000 people apply for one of 900 or so permits, and Smith has been trying to get one for years. “It was on my bucket list and it didn’t disappoint,” she said. “And it inspired me even more to protect this river from the mine that could destroy it.”

The mine to which she refers is the Black Butte copper mine, located on 7,500 acres of private land along Sheep Creek, 17 miles from where it flows into the river. In early April, about the time spring had freed the Smith and its tributaries from winter’s grip, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) approved Black Butte and assured the public that it was issuing the most protective hard-rock mining permit in its history.

The mining company, Sandfire Resources America, promises to prevent the tailings – acidic waste rock and toxic liquids – from leaching pollution into nearby groundwater, creeks and the Smith River, into which they all run.

Such assurances have done little to assuage the fears of a coalition of increasingly vocal opponents, including anglers, ranchers, guide-outfitters, paddlers, conservationists and writers, who worry that the mine poses too great a risk to the fabled Smith.

On June 4, an array of conservation organizations filed a lawsuit in state district court, challenging the mine operating permit and alleging a failure to conduct a thorough environmental impact analysis. A week later, they filed a second challenge, against the state’s decision to allow Sandfire to pump large amounts of groundwater for the operation of the mine.

“This one is a no-brainer,” said David Brooks, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited. “Most of our concerns have been dismissed. One of the geochemists we hired [to review the project] was just stunned that the state would permit a mine in such a high-sulfur ore body. There is no other path to oppose this thing than litigation.”

Sandfire Resources America, an Australian mining company headquartered in Vancouver, Canada, hopes to extract an estimated 23,000 tons of high-grade copper annually from a deposit worth an estimated $2 billion. It would be an underground, rather than open-pit, structure that requires the removal and disposal of approximately 800,000 tons of sulfide-rich waste rock, which has been the source of acid mine runoff that has destroyed waterways and fisheries all over the state in the past century.

A spokesperson for Sandfire Resources America, Nancy Schlepp, said in an emailed statement that the company wasn’t surprised a lawsuit had been filed. “No major natural resource project in Montana goes unchallenged, at some point,” she said. “Montana DEQ found that all environmental issues have been addressed and that this permit can be granted knowing that the environment which we all value and care for is protected.”

Jerry Zieg, a local geologist who helped discover the deposit and is now Sandfire’s senior vice president, has publicly touted a variety of design elements – in particular, a new method of mixing cement with the tailings to prevent acid mine runoff – that set the Black Butte mine apart from its destructive precedents.

Zieg’s hometown of White Sulphur Springs is only a dozen miles from the mine site, and signs in support of the mine appear in shop windows downtown. Sandfire and local politicians trumpet the benefits of an estimated 290 new jobs and the above-average salaries that come with them. The mine would also generate millions in taxes for the county and a huge bump in indirect economic benefits for local businesses.

Opponents maintain that the risks far outweigh the benefits. Engineering consultants hired by the plaintiffs maintain that the cemented tailings touted by Sandfire are far from a surefire solution. Sixty percent of them will be stored in perpetuity in a lined pit on the surface just above Sheep Creek and pose a long-term risk.

“Rubber liners always fail,” Brooks said. “Most devastating effects of acid mine drainage happen after the mine is reclaimed and they’ve left, often in bankruptcy.”

This is not the first fight to stop a mine in Montana, and it probably won’t be the last. Montana has never turned down a mining permit, and hard-rock mines have a long history of polluting the state’s waterways. The most notorious example is the Berkeley Pit copper mine in Butte and the smelter in nearby Anaconda, which poisoned the soil and water in the upper reaches of the Clark Fork River, creating the nation’s largest superfund site.

Such environmental debacles have taught some Montanans to be skeptical of promises made by mining proponents and the bureaucrats who permit their projects, and they’ve had some success at quashing them. In 1997, Montanans halted the McDonald Gold Project, an open-pit mine that involved spraying cyanide on huge mounds of crushed ore, when a ballot initiative banned this form of mining statewide.

A gold mine near Yellowstone national park and oil and gas leases on the Rocky Mountain Front were all bought out or legislated away because they were in places too special or fragile to risk.

For now, the fate of the mine and the Smith River is in the hands of the state. The deadline for it to reply to the legal challenges is the end of July, but the process will probably be a long one and could drag out well past November’s U.S. presidential election.

“I was very active in the fight to block the McDonald Mine, and the Smith has that kind of potential,” said Annick Smith. “It deserves that kind of recognition and I think it’s going to get it through this fight.”

Jeff Galius is a freelance writer in Missoula, Montana. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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