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April 11, 2022

Smith River One Step Closer to Protections From Black Butte Copper Mine After Court Ruling

Victory: Proposed mine would produce roughly 12.9 million tons of acid-generating waste

Contacts

Perry Wheeler, Earthjustice, pwheeler@earthjustice.org, (202) 792-6211

Bonnie Gestring, Earthworks, bgestring@earthworks.org, (406) 546-8386

David Brooks, Montana Trout Unlimited, david@montanatu.org, (406) 543-0054

Scott Bosse, American Rivers, sbosse@americanrivers.org, (406) 570-0455

Derf Johnson, MEIC, djohnson@meic.org, (406) 581-4634

Meagher County, MT

Montana’s Smith River moves closer toward protection from foreign-owned Sandfire Resources’ (SFR.V) proposed 1,888-acre Black Butte Copper Mine following a ruling in Montana district court. The court found that the state’s review of the mine did not adequately address serious concerns over the safety and environmental impacts of the proposed mine, which would produce roughly 12.9 million tons of acid-generating waste, threatening the water quality and trout populations in the beloved river and one of its major tributaries. The mine would also require massive water diversions, impacting existing water rights.

“The court’s decision is good news for the Smith River and the thousands of Montana families, like mine, that love this river,” said Bonnie Gestring, Northwest Program Director for Earthworks. “Too many mines in Montana have unnecessarily polluted our rivers and streams. We can’t let that happen to the headwaters of the Smith River. The court’s ruling echoes our grave concerns about the potential harm from the proposed mine.”

In June 2020, Montana Trout Unlimited, Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC), Trout Unlimited, Earthworks, and American Rivers filed the lawsuit in state district court challenging the mine’s operating permit approved by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), alleging that DEQ failed to conduct a thorough environmental analysis and that the agency ignored over 12,000 public comments opposing the mine. The coalition is represented by the nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice.

Montana's Smith River is renowned for its spectacular scenery, towering limestone canyons, and world-class trout fishery. The Smith River is the only permitted recreational river in Montana, featuring an unparalleled 59-mile stretch with only one public put-in and one take-out point for boaters. The Smith River and its tributaries provide crucial habitat and spawning grounds for regional trout fisheries and water for downstream agricultural lands.

Although Sandfire has begun site preparation, it cannot begin to excavate mine tunnels until it receives separate approval from the Department of Natural Resources Conservation to divert large volumes of water to dewater the mine. That action is also being challenged.

“We’re pleased the judge agreed that the Black Butte Copper Mine poses unacceptable risks to water quality and wild trout in Sheep Creek and the Smith River,” said Scott Bosse, Northern Rockies director for American Rivers. “There are some places that are too special and too environmentally sensitive to mine, especially when the mine relies on untested technologies. The headwaters of the Smith River are one of them.”

“The facts of this case have been clear to us for the better part of a decade. We are glad to see that this court agreed that the Black Butte Copper Mine threatens to pollute and dewater some of the most important clean water sources of the Smith River,” said David Brooks, Montana Trout Unlimited. “This is a win for trout, clean water, sacred Native American lands, and Smith River lovers for generations to come.”

“In Montana, clean water matters for our economy, our environment, and our way of life. The court’s decision recognizes and affirms that principle,” stated Derf Johnson, Clean Water Program Director with the Montana Environmental Information Center. “With this proposal, the risks are just too great for the river and the folks that depend on it.”

“This is a significant step toward securing protections for Montana’s beloved Smith River,” said Benjamin Scrimshaw, associate attorney for Earthjustice’s Northern Rockies office. “The ruling echoed our concerns over the safety and environmental impacts of Sandfire’s proposed mine, which would jeopardize the water quality, recreation opportunities, and trout populations in the river. Montanans across the state have spoken out about this proposed mine and its potential impacts. We are happy the court recognized the threat it poses as well.”

Read the final order.

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.