Montana Supreme Court Overturns District Court Ruling That Blocked Mine’s Operating Permit

Separate challenge to Black Butte Copper Mine's water rights could still prevent mining


David Brooks, Montana Trout Unlimited, 406-543-0054,

Derf Johnson, MEIC, 406-581-4634,

Perry Wheeler, Earthjustice, 202-792-6211,

The Montana Supreme Court today ruled in favor of Sandfire Resources (Tintina) and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), reinstating the operating permit for the proposed 1,888-acre Black Butte Copper Mine in the Smith River watershed. The decision overturned a district court ruling in favor of conservation groups, which found that the state’s review of the mine did not adequately address concerns over safety and environmental impacts. The copper mine 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.

Conservation groups are also challenging the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s (DNRC) permit allowing Sandfire to divert large volumes of water to dewater the mine, which threatens surface water flow in Sheep Creek and the Smith River. That case is currently before the Montana Supreme Court, which will hear arguments on March 29. If the court strikes down Sandfire’s water rights, the company cannot proceed with mining.

“This marks another sad example of Montana’s lenient mining and permitting laws allowing for the development of a large-scale, high-risk mine to be built without proper regard for the other values of a place, including its water quality, quantity, fishery, wildlife, recreational opportunities, and cultural heritage,” lamented David Brooks, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited. “Fortunately, our fight to protect the Smith is not over. We will continue to pursue our coalition’s claims of illegal water use by the mine, as well as moving forward with our effort to protect the surrounding public lands from the perils of mining.”

“We’re deeply disappointed by the court’s decision,” said Bonnie Gestring, northwest program director at Earthworks.  “The Smith River watershed is no place to store toxic mine waste with unproven technology. Despite this hurdle, we remain committed to protecting the Smith River with the coalition’s lawsuit against the mine’s nefarious dewatering plans, which is still pending before the court.”

In June 2020, Montana Trout Unlimited, Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC), Trout Unlimited, Earthworks, and American Rivers filed suit in 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.

“Today’s decision is a setback in the fight to protect Montana’s beloved Smith River, but we remain committed to protecting the river and all who depend on it,” said Jenny Harbine, an Earthjustice attorney representing the conservation groups. “Our challenge to the mine’s dewatering scheme is pending before the Montana Supreme Court and presents another opportunity to defend the integrity of this watershed.”

“We strongly disagree with the court’s decision to allow this dangerous mine to move forward with permitting, but the fight is certainly not over,” said Derf Johnson, deputy director of the Montana Environmental Information Center. “We will continue to hold the Montana DEQ, DNRC, and Sandfire to account for any and all impacts that this incredibly risky proposal has on the cherished Smith.”

“There’s no way to sugarcoat it — this is a major setback for the Smith River and everyone who cherishes it,” said Scott Bosse, Northern Rockies regional director for American Rivers. “But we still have another case pending before the Montana Supreme Court, and there are other options available to us to give the Smith River the protection it deserves.”

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. Just last week, the state announced the 867 lucky people (out of 12,452 applications) who won an opportunity to float the Smith in this year’s permit lottery. The Smith River and its tributaries provide crucial habitat and spawning grounds for regional trout fisheries and water for downstream agricultural lands.

An aerial view of low clouds and the verdant landscape around the Smith River in Montana.
The Smith River in Montana is beloved for trout fishing and rafting. (Pat Clayton /

Additional Resources

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.