Save Our Smith

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.

Action call! Comments to DEQ on Smith River Mine DEIS due Friday, May 10th!

May 6th, 2019


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:

  1. The Smith River generates $10 million in annual economic activity to the State of Montana. The Outdoor Recreation Industry generates $7 billion in state revenue.
  2. Outfitters will launch 73 of 1,361 total Smith River permits in 2019. Outfitters create Montana jobs, are responsible stewards, and the money they generate stays in the state and has a substantial ripple effect on the economy—airfare, hotels, travel, etc.
  3. Sandfire is an Australian-owned mining company that will pocket the lionshare of profits and cut-and-run when profitability ceases.
  4. $50 million in Montana tax dollars already goes to mine clean-up. Do we want to add a failed mining experiment on the Smith River to the list, at the cost of existing, perpetual Montana jobs?
  5. Sandfire has been clear about expanding and growing the operation into a 50-year mining district. The DEIS should evaluate the entirety of the project and its potential impacts, and not allow Sandfire to segment the analysis.
  6. The DEIS does not accurately project how much water the mine will remove from the watershed. Further, the modeling used in the DEIS does not account for how much the surface temperature will change when they replace the water they are proposing to withdraw.  
  7. Explosives used in the mine will create fractures in the bedrock. These fractures will create pathways for nitrates (explosives waste) and other contaminants to flow into groundwater.
  8. Nitrates, along with an increased temperature, promotes the growth of algae. Algal growth decreases the amount of available habitat for macroinvertebrates (fish food), and gravel beds available for spawning.
  9. The cement-tailings paste that Tintina proposes backfilling the mine with will break down over time. As the cement decomposes, tailings will oxidize, which has the potential to produce acid drainage. Acid drainage could flow through fractures in the bedrock, into the groundwater, and ultimately into the Smith River.
  10. Fish population analyses are incomplete, and existing data was misrepresented. Brook and brown trout were lumped together in some reports, and sculpin populations were presented in the same graphs as trout.
  11. Size and frequency-of-length were not considered in evaluating the impact on fish populations—will a certain size class be harmed more substantially than another? This could significantly decrease reproductive success.

Email comments to, or send them by mail to: Craig Jones, Department of Environmental Quality, P.O. Box 200901, Helena, MT 59601.

About the Smith

(c) DH Brown Photography (5)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.

The Risks

Smith-River-Mine-MapA 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.

Map of Potential Tintina Expansion

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.

The Petition

Urge Montana to Protect the Smith River!

Contact Governor Bullock & the Montana DEQ

Dear Governor Bullock and Director Livers,


11,441 signatures

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073Smith042413_markedMontana’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.

Petition Language:

“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.”

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Derf Johnson
Montana Environmental Information Center
(406) 443-2520

Bonnie Gestring
(406) 549-7361


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


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