Smith River copper mine takes another step forward

Smith

Montana Trout Unlimited

The Smith River is one of the most popular waterways in Montana.

The proposed Black Butte copper mine near White Sulphur Springs moved one step closer to reality this week when the state issued a draft air quality permit.

That has sportsmen’s groups worried.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality issued the permit after reviewing potential air pollutants that Tintina Resources said the Black Butte mine would release during its 35-year run.

The public has until July 15 to comment on the permit.

The DEQ imposed 20 conditions dealing mainly with limiting particulate matter and dust, including a processing cap of 3,700 tons of copper ore a day or 1.35 million tons during any 12-month period. The DEQ also limited the amount of road dust that haul trucks could kick up.

Trucks and mining equipment burn a lot of diesel fuel, adding nitrogen oxide and smog to the air, which is normally pristine in the unpopulated Little Belt Mountains.

So the mining company would be limited to using less than 472,000 gallons of diesel fuel for underground equipment during any 12-month period and less than 806,000 gallons of diesel for surface and underground operations combined per year.

Also for blasting, the mine is limited to less than 1,552 tons of ammonium nitrate fuel oil during any 12-month period.

The permit is one of three that the mining company needs from the state before it can start excavating the mine, which will run underground.

The company also needs a surface water discharge permit and the operating permit, which is driving an continuing environmental assessment. The study should be finished by the beginning of 2019.

But it’s the potential for water pollution that has some Montanans concerned.

In November 2012, Tintina requested permission to dig a 2-mile-long, truck-sized shaft angling to a depth of 450 feet on private land.

The problem is that the proposed mine sits less than a mile away from Sheep Creek, which is a main tributary of the Smith River, one of Montana’s most scenic rivers and a popular state park. Each year, tens of thousands of recreationists apply for about 1,100 permits to float and fish the 59-mile scenic portion of Smith River.

But that would change if acid-laced water leached from the copper-sulfide ore starts polluting Sheep Creek and the Smith River 17 miles downstream, killing trout and other wildlife.

Tintina Resources and its owner Sandfire Resources have promised that won’t happen with new mining methods. But those opposed to the mine say the liners of waste rock pits regularly leak and accidents happen. They also predict that the company would eventually extend the mine into ore veins under national forest land.

On Tuesday, Sandfire Resources, an Australian company, issued a press release trumpeting the success in getting the draft air quality permit and announcing a new vice president of project development, Robert Scargill out of Australia, who will lead a feasibility study for the mine.

Sandfire Resources bought a controlling number of Tintina shares in 2014, giving it say over the top executives.

“We welcome Rob as a valued member of the management team and as a director to our board. We continue to move this extraordinary project forward and remain fully committed to operating in a safe and environmentally sound way that will protect our pristine environment while providing new economic opportunities for Meagher County and the state of Montana,” said Sandfire CEO John Shanahan.

Often, once a mine closes, the company leaves or goes bankrupt, and the state and ultimately taxpayers end up having to pay for any future clean-up problems. The state is paying for water treatment in perpetuity due to leaks from several mines, including the Mike Horse mine above Lincoln and the Zortman-Landusky mine near the Fort Belkap Reservation.

With the Black Butte mine close to an approval and other mining companies trying to gain approval to mine gold on Forest Service land north of Yellowstone National Park, YES for Responsible Mining is trying to pass I-186, a ballot initiative that would require mines, before they would get a permit, to show that they would not require perpetual treatment of contaminated water.

Sandfire is one of several mining companies that are paying for opposition to the initiative. Shanahan has already stated that his company has no plan to treat contaminated water forever.

In a related move, mining interests are supporting a congressional rider on the National Defense Authorization Act proposed by Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nevada, that would allow federal agencies to forego public input or oversight for any mining operation on the claim that the host state would address the environmental impacts. However, the law does not require a state to offer any public process regarding decisions about national public lands.

To comment on the DEQ air quality permit, go here.

Laura Lundquist writes for Missoula Current, where this story originally appeared. 

Comments are closed.