The Smith River is not a location for another failed mining experiment.
Montana’s Smith River is renowned worldwide for its clean water, rugged canyon scenery, and blue ribbon trout fishery. The Smith is Montana’s only permitted recreational river. The permitted section of the Smith River winds 59 miles through a remote canyon in the Big Belt Mountains. Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks classifies the Smith River’s fishery as high-value, owing to its bountiful population of rainbow, brown, westslope cutthroat, and brook trout. The canyon walls of the Smith also boast some of the best examples of Native American pictographs in Montana.
A small Canadian mining start-up, Tintina Resources, has partnered with Australian mining firm Sandfire, and has submitted an application to the state of Montana to build a massive copper mine at the headwaters of the Smith River, on the banks of Sheep Creek. You can read a critique of the comments here. The mine would drop below the water table, and Tintina would have to pump water out of the mine to keep it from flooding. The pumped wastewater would contain arsenic and other toxics. Tintina’s proposed copper mine is particularly concerning because it will mine through sulfide minerals, which when exposed to air and water can react to form sulfuric acid in a process known as acid mine drainage. Tintina is also planning a major expansion beyond their original permit application, and has purchased several mineral leases and claimed several forest service tracts. Montana has a long legacy of mining projects that have contaminated our rivers and streams. The Smith River is not a location for another failed mining experiment.
by Malcolm Gilbert—April 25th, 2019
The Smith River Mine continues to advance further along in the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) permitting process. DEQ published a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) on March 10, and as such they were required by law to open a public comment period lasting a maximum of 60 days, unless permission is granted by Sandfire Resources otherwise.
Earthjustice filed a request for an extension on behalf of MEIC, Trout Unlimited, American Rivers, and Earthworks, but we were flatly denied. Upon review of the DEIS it is abundantly clear why Sandfire isn’t interested in opening itself up to additional criticism. There are glaring holes in the DEIS, and the work that TetraTech consulting put into modeling various outcomes clearly favors Sandfire’s interests and rests on the assumption the mine’s trajectory will be met with one best-case-scenario after the other.
We are deeply troubled that the public has been granted such a paltry amount of time for reviewing and commenting on a technical document containing well-over 800 pages—this is frankly unacceptable. The public should be given a generous amount of time to make well-informed and educated contributions to the DEQ during this phase of the process, and Sandfire should do right by Montanans and allow DEQ to extend the comment period.
While experts continue digging into details of the DEIS so that we can more specifically address deficiencies within the narrow scope of the analysis, there are a number of issues that stand out. As the public weighs-in on the DEIS in comments to DEQ, there are a number of things to consider.
Fish, Wildlife, and Parks recently published a survey on fish movement throughout the Missouri River watershed. The survey found that mountain whitefish and rainbow trout are heavily dependent on the upper reaches of Sheep Creek as a spawning tributary. The DEIS insufficiently models the likelihood that the mine will dewater this critical tributary, which could have devastating effects on those fish populations.
Further, the DEIS does not sufficiently account for how pollutants might travel as water used in the mine operation is pumped back into the groundwater. It is entirely plausible that a vertical gradient could drive pollutants from groundwater to surface water, so nearby wetlands could be affected to a much greater extent than models predict. Compromised wetlands could mean compromised critical habitat for fragile native plants and animals.
Finally, the mine’s plan for storage and remediation is experimental. Sandfire intends to leave tailings and toxic waste in place—potentially for decades—using techniques that might seem convincing on paper. The techniques do not have a track record to prove they are as dependable as the mine operators would have us believe. As Montanans, we are more than familiar with the unpredictability of Mother Nature, and know that it is impossible to account for every detail that could potentially go wrong these sorts of experiments in the case of wildfire, earthquakes, flooding, or other extreme weather events.
The Smith River is a treasure. Montana can’t afford another failed mining experiment, especially in such a beloved environment. We need you to make this clear to DEQ, and to make it clear before the comment period ends on May 10.
Attend a public meeting, and submit comments to DEQ! The DEQ is hosting five public meetings:
For more information on these events, please visit MEIC’s events page at www.meic.org/events. For technical information and instruction on submitting comments if you cannot make a public meeting, go to http://deq.mt.gov/Land/hardrock/Tintina-EIS for technical information.
Montana’s Smith River is renowned for its spectacular scenery, towering limestone canyons, and blue-ribbon trout fishery. It originates high in the Castle Mountains of central Montana, and flows through remote canyons before it empties into the Missouri River about 10 miles downstream of Great Falls.
It is Montana’s only permitted river due to the exceptional public demand to experience its fishing and recreational opportunities. And, it’s an important economic engine – generating upwards of $10 million in economic activity for Montana. A portion of the river is managed as a State Park, featuring an incredible 59-mile stretch of river with only one put-in and one take-out point.
The Smith River and its tributaries provide crucial habitat and spawning grounds for regional trout fisheries. The Sheep Creek drainage accounts for over half of tributary spawning of rainbow trout in the Smith River drainage, and rainbow trout have been known to travel nearly 200 miles round-trip from the Missouri River to spawn!
The Smith River depends on clean cold water from its tributaries to sustain the aquatic life within its banks and the agricultural operations along it. Demands on the river’s waters already often exceed available flows in many years, creating challenges for downstream water users.
A small Canadian company, Tintina Resources, has partnered with Australian mining firm Sandfire Resources and applied for to develop a large copper mine directly adjacent to and underneath Sheep Creek at the headwaters of the Smith River in central Montana.The project, known as the Black Butte Copper Mine, is located approximately 20 miles north of White Sulphur Springs in central Montana.
The proposed mine is particularly a concern because the mine will have to dig into sulfide minerals, which when exposed to air and water, can react to form sulfuric acid in a process known as acid mine drainage. Acid mine drainage is highly toxic to fish and other aquatic life.
Groundwater pumping from mining activities could potentially lower the water table, and create a “cone of depression” that extends to the Sheep Creek alluvium – posing a threat to adjacent stream flows. The Smith River, and Sheep Creek, already suffer from low flows during most years, putting pressure on downstream water users and preventing the fishery from reaching its potential.
Groundwater that is captured in the tunnel will contain arsenic and other toxic substances that pose a serious threat to water quality.
Tintina is also planning a major expansion from their original application materials. Tintina has purchased several additional mineral interests in the Smith River basin, stretching from their original project proposal to the west, and much closer to the Smith River. This expansion could turn the west side of the Little Belt Mountains into an industrialized area.
While Vancouver, B.C. headquartered Tintina Resources is managing the project, Sandfire Resources recently purchased a controlling stake in the proposal, meaning that major decisions will now be made by a board of directors located over 8,000 miles away.
Montana’s Smith River is an extraordinary resource, and deserves our most rigorous effort to protect it from mine pollution and dewatering. Montana Governor Steve Bullock and Department of Environmental Quality Director Tom Livers will make critical decisions that will determine the future of the Smith River and the Sheep Creek Mine.
Please contact Governor Bullock and Director Livers by signing the petition. Let them know that the Smith River is an incredibly important place for the people of Montana and across the country and world, and should not be sacrificed for temporary and risky mining activities.
“Dear Governor Bullock and Director Livers,
I am joining with others who are concerned about the proposal by Tintina Resources and Sandfire to develop a large copper mine in the headwaters of our cherished Smith River. The Smith River is renowned for its spectacular scenery, towering limestone canyons, and blue-ribbon trout fishery, and it’s an economic engine for the region – generating up to $10 million in annual revenue from these activities.
Tintina and Sandfire have now applied for a full-scale mine operating permit from the Department of Environmental Quality. This puts the headwaters at risk from arsenic, acid mine drainage, and dewatering.
I implore you to safeguard the Smith River watershed from the Smith River Mine.”
Montana Environmental Information Center
Bozeman Daily Chronicle, 6/8/17, State wants more detail on Smith River mine
Great Falls Tribune, 3/17/17, Smith River mine prompts bill to boost reclamation bonds
Bozeman Daily Chronicle, 12/16/16, DEQ Again Asks Tintina to revise Smith River mine
10/17/16, Helena Independent Record, Helena City Commission adopts Smith River resolution
Missoulian, 12/16/15: Company applies for operating permit for copper mine near Smith River
Bozeman Daily Chronicle, 10/17/15: Why gamble on the future of Montana’s Smith River? (Guest Editorial by K.C. Walsh, President of Simms Fishing Products)
New York Times, 7/17/2015: Can Montana’s Smith River Survive a Nearby Mine?
Great Falls Tribune, 2/16/15: Bigger bond for metal mines sought
Billings Gazette, 1/22/2015: Don’t Sacrifice Smith River to Copper Mining (Guest Editorial)
Missoulian, 6/9/2014: Black Butte Copper Mine proposal brings battle to Smith River
Missoulian, 4/8/14: Mining company revises exploration plan for Smith River headwaters
Field & Stream, 4/1/14: Lawsuit Filed Against Mining Exploration on Montana’s Smith River
Missoulian opinion by Greg Tollefson, 3/27/14: A New Threat to Smith River
Bozeman Daily Chronicle, 3/17/14: Lawsuit Challenges DEQ approval of mine near Smith River
Billings Gazette, 1/16/14: State OKs copper exploration at head of Smith River
Helena Independent Record, 6/16/13: Copper Mine Near White Sulfur Springs Gets Initial OK From DEQ