Skip to main content

Groups Challenge Copper Mine Proposal that Threatens the Smith River

Challenge aims to protect water quality, important trout habitat within the watershed
The Smith River in Montana, beloved for trout fishing and rafting is threatened by a copper mine.

The Smith River in Montana is the only river that requires permits to float. It is beloved for trout fishing and rafting. A multinational corporation plans to build a copper mine in the watershed threatening the health of the river.

Brian Grossenbacher
June 4, 2020
Meagher County, M.T. —

Conservation groups took legal action today to protect the Smith River Watershed from the proposed Black Butte Copper Mine. Tintina Montana, a wholly owned subsidiary of Sandfire Resources America, (TSX.V: SFR and OTCQB: SRAFF) is spearheading the proposed mine which would span 1,888 acres in the Sheep Creek basin and require massive water diversions threatening existing water rights. The mine would also produce about 12.9 million tons of acid-generating waste, threatening water quality and important trout habitat in the beloved river.

Montana Trout Unlimited, Montana Environmental Information Center, Trout Unlimited, Earthworks, and American Rivers filed the lawsuit in state district court challenging the mine operating permit approved by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), alleging a failure to conduct a thorough environmental analysis and ignoring over 12,000 public comments opposing the mine. The coalition is represented by the non-profit environmental law firm Earthjustice.

“We have many concerns about this project and its potential to permanently damage Montana’s crown jewel river. One of our major concerns is Tintina Montana’s use of a wholly untested technique for disposing of toxic mine waste that could result in widespread contamination of Smith River tributaries. We believe Montana DEQ erred in issuing this permit and this is only our first salvo in our defense of Montana’s irreplaceable Smith River,” said Ben Scrimshaw, Earthjustice attorney.

David Brooks, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited, said, “the DEQ has permitted the Black Butte mine without adequately addressing its risks of polluting and dewatering the Smith River and one of its most important trout tributaries. So, we have no choice but to ask the courts and state to fully uphold our state mining laws, good science, and legal water rights. The Smith River is too valuable to too many Montanans to do otherwise. We aim to pass a healthy Smith River on to future generations, not a legacy of more mine pollution and taxpayer cleanup.”

“This is the wrong mine in the wrong ore body in the wrong watershed,” said Derf Johnson, clean water program director for the Montana Environmental Information Center. “Thousands of people float and fish the Smith River every year, and it provides hundreds of jobs. DEQ’s approval of a mine places those values in jeopardy.”

“This challenge is all about protecting the waters that make the Smith River one of the most beloved rivers in our state,” said Bonnie Gestring, northwest program director for Earthworks. “The Smith River watershed is no place to store toxic mine waste using unproven technology. We’re adamant that this wonderful river should be nobody’s guinea pig, especially not the mining industry’s.”

“I want to be crystal clear about why we are pursuing litigation, because this is not something we take lightly. We are taking a stand to protect Montana’s most sacred river from a foreign-owned mine that couldn’t be situated in a worse location. Whatever happens at Black Butte will affect every drop of water downstream and every form of life that depends on that water, including fish, wildlife, livestock and people. And let us not forget what this mining company’s grand vision is as articulated by its former CEO — to create a 50-year industrial mining district in the headwaters of the Smith River. We cannot let that happen,” said Scott Bosse, Northern Rockies Director of American Rivers.

“If we fail to protect water and water rights in Montana, we fail to protect our two biggest economic sectors — outdoor recreation and agriculture. The Smith River isn’t only a Blue Ribbon trout stream and Montana treasure, but also an economic driver and contributor to Montana’s $7.1 billion a year outdoor economy. It is a sustainable resource that must be protected,” said Colin Cooney with Trout Unlimited.

Background:

Montana's Smith River is renowned for its spectacular scenery, towering limestone canyons, and world-class trout fishery. The State manages the Smith River as the only permitted recreational river in Montana, featuring an unparalleled 59-mile stretch of river. The Smith River and its tributaries provide crucial habitat and spawning grounds for regional trout fisheries. 

Tintina Resources (also known as Sandfire Resources), proposes to construct the Black Butte Copper Mine adjacent to Sheep Creek, a major Smith River tributary. If completed, this copper mine would span 1,888 acres in the Sheep Creek basin, about 19 river miles from the Smith River. Sheep Creek provides important habitat for rainbow trout, brown trout, and Westslope cutthroat trout, a sensitive species vulnerable to extirpation in Montana. The Sheep Creek drainage accounts for over half of tributary spawning of rainbow trout in the Smith River drainage.

The Black Butte Copper Mine would produce about 12.9 million tons of acid-generating waste and toxic metals, including nickel, thallium, strontium, copper, lead, arsenic, and uranium. Excavation of the mine would require pumping around 800 acre-feet of groundwater every year, which will deplete streamflows in Sheep Creek and other Smith River tributaries. Because the mine is proposed within the Upper Missouri River Basin, which the Montana Legislature closed to groundwater withdrawals in order to protect sensitive rivers and creeks from depletion, Tintina must obtain a separate permit from the State Department of Natural Resources Conservation for its complex scheme to mitigate that depletion. The groups signaled they are separately reviewing the State Department of Natural Resources Conservation’s decision to authorize Tintina’s groundwater withdrawals.

The lawsuit challenges the State’s approval of a mine operating permit that authorizes a novel approach to containing toxic mine waste, which the groups say is risky and untested. The lawsuit also points to the potential for the mine to generate perpetual water pollution in the form of toxic metals and acid-mine drainage, as have other Montana mines, and the dewatering of major Smith River tributaries, which would be harmful to the Smith River’s beloved fishery.

The conservation groups’ lawsuit is now pending in Montana’s Fourteenth Judicial District Court.

Contacts

Ben Scrimshaw, Earthjustice, (406) 586-9699

David Brooks, Montana Trout Unlimited

Derf Johnson, Montana Environmental Information Center

Colin Cooney, Trout Unlimited

Bonnie Gestring, Earthworks 

Scott Bosse, American Rivers 

We're the lawyers for the environment, and the law is on our side.