A harmless copper mine in the headwaters of the Smith River?

If it sounds too good to be true..it is.

Sandfire Resources, an Australian company that recently took over Tintina Resources, is proposing a large underground copper mine next to and underneath Sheep Creek, one of the two most critical tributaries of Montana’s famed Smith River. Sandfires’s interests total about 12,000 acres, and include 7,500 acres of private land and the underlying mineral estate, as well as the mining claims it has on adjoining federal land. Sandfire promises its Black Butte mine will include “state of the art” environmental protections, and that this foreign company cares just as much about the Smith River as Montanans do.

Be concerned. Montanans have heard similar promises from many mining companies many, many times before. And they are almost always wrong, resulting in damaged streams and habitat and long-term, taxpayer funded cleanups.

Sheep Creek at times represents half of the flow of the Smith River at Camp Baker, the launch site for floaters. It is often clear and cool when the Smith is turbid and warm. At least half of the trout spawning in the Smith River watershed use Sheep Creek. Some fish even come from the Missouri River to spawn in Sheep Creek. The Smith’s fishery generates more than $10 million annually to Montana’s economy. Non-angling floaters generate millions more.

 Did Sandfire receive a mining permit recently?

Yes. On Monday, August 14th, 2017 after failing three times,  the foreign-owned mining company formally known as Tintina Resources of Canada was informed by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) that its application for a permit to mine has met its completeness and compliance review. Then, on March 13, 2020, after a several year process that included comments from thousands of private citizens against this mine, DEQ announced the completion of a Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which is intended to be an in-depth analysis of the environmental impacts of an operating mine. The EIS process began at the end of September 2017 and comments closed in May 2019. On April 9, 2020, DEQ issued their Record of Decision (ROD) permitting the mine. While the public input process is now closed for the Final EIS, we encourage citizens to continue to write letters to their local newspapers with their concerns about this mine.

Sandfire’s Black Butte mine poses risks to the water quality, flows and wild trout in Sheep Creek and the Smith River in numerous ways. For instance:

Photo by Matt Mendelsohn

The underground workings will require constant dewatering of groundwater, which could interfere with recharge of Sheep Creek. Further, the pumped groundwater, will have to be discharged. It will be enriched with arsenic at concentrations exceeding human health standards, as well as nitrates in concentrations that can harm aquatic life.

The copper is found in an ore body that is high in sulfide-bearing minerals. When mining exposes sulfides to air and oxygen it can produce acid mine discharges that lower pH and leach metals. This is often harmful to aquatic life. Waste rock and tailings (waste from crushing copper-bearing ore) will also include exposed sulfides. Some will be stored on the surface forever.

Copper concentrate from year-round mining and milling will be shipped to an off-site railhead, either Livingston or Townsend. The potential exists for an accident on icy roads, perhaps spilling concentrate into important trout stream such as Deep Creek, the Shields River, or any number of other streams.

Recognizing that tailings disposal is often the source of long-term pollution at mines, Sandfire claims that its proposal to mix tailings with cement and pump some of them underground should put Montanans’ minds at rest.

Though Sandfire’s proposal might be better than standard, modern and failure-prone methods of disposing of these mine wastes, it is also experimental. Sixty percent of the materials will still be stored on the surface in a lined facility, and the company cannot say how long the liners will last, nor what happens when the cemented tailings degrade and potentially leach acid-and metals laden pollution into shallow groundwater.

But Sandfire says, not to worry, the Smith River is 17 miles away and therefore can’t be harmed.

Sandfire is wrong. If groundwater pumping, or diversion of ground or surface flows for mine development occur, it could reduce flows in Sheep Creek. At times, Sheep Creek constitutes half the flow of the Smith at Camp Baker. If Sheep Creek is polluted, the pollution can easily reach the Smith. There are many examples in Montana of acid mine drainage and metals harming seemingly distant downstream waters. Trout in the Smith, and as far away as the Missouri River, move into upper Sheep Creek – even above the mine location – seasonally. Radio telemetry data confirms this. If Sheep Creek is harmed, then the Smith and even possibly the Missouri River’s trout fishery will be harmed.

Sandfire says its mine will have a small environmental footprint.

Sandfire’s definition of “footprint” is extremely misleading. The company does not account for off-site impacts its operation could create miles away, including pollution or dewatering that spreads to downstream surface and ground water; harm to populations of migratory trout that move from Sheep Creek into the Smith and Missouri Rivers; or, damages that could occur in transportation corridors, such as from a spill of copper concentrate from the company’s haul trucks along Deep Creek or the Shields River, which are many miles away from the mine. 

Sandfire claims any impacts it incurs will be temporary because its mine will operate only for 11-14 years.

The impacts from many modern and historical mines in Montana will last for decades, and in the case of acid-mine pollution, in perpetuity. That could happen at Sandfire’s Black Butte project. Further, Sandfire is telling the public its mine will “only” operate for 11-14 years, but it is telling investors there is potential to mine for 50 years, and to expand operations 20 kilometers – about 17 miles – from the site of the Black Butte mine. In other words, Sandfire is really looking to open a large mining district, with the potential for many other operations, in the Smith River country. That’s why the company has legally secured additional mining claims and mineral deposits around the Black Butte project.

But state regulators from DEQ say they can make sure the company doesn’t create harm.

DEQ always says this. And there are many contemporary examples of where they didn’t, as promised, prevent harm, nor did the agency require adequate bonding from the industry to pay for clean-up when the companies abandoned their operations. The examples of the public getting stuck with cleanup and scarred landscapes are legion at closed modern mines: at Zortman-Landusky near Malta; at the Kendall Mine near Lewistown; and, at the Beal Mountain Mine near Anaconda, among others. Based on the record, it is quite possible that some current operating hard-rock mines, such as the gold mine north of Whitehall and the Montana Resources Mine in Butte, will probably leave permanent problems with unfunded obligations once they are closed. Some of the same regulators who made mistakes elsewhere are reviewing Sandfire’s proposals.

Sandfire’s spokespeople say the company is concerned about the Smith River and Montana’s environment, after all two members of their management team are locals.

Sandfire Resources, an Australian mining company, recently bought 80% of Tintina Resources, a Canadian company, and changed the name to Sandfire Resources. Board members are Australian and Canadian. Decisions affecting the Smith River and local communities will largely be made by foreigners.

So, should local landowners, anglers and other recreationists worry about Sandfire’s proposal?

Absolutely. And it is completely reasonable because of the industry’s track record and DEQ’s mixed record protecting the environment, that all of the company’s expressions of concern, promises and purported guarantees should be met with severe skepticism.

How can I help?

No matter what the industry says, the history of mining, even “modern mining”, in Montana is extremely poor. We have taken the word of the mining industry that mining and the environment can coexists, and each time they are wrong. Montana Trout Unlimited has joined several other organizations in filing suit to stop the Black Butte Mine, stating that the Final EIS is inadequate and that the mine poses a serious risk to both water quantity and water quality in the Smith watershed. You can help by donating to our Smith River Campaign, to cover the costs of this fight. Visit our DONATE page to make your contribution.

Montanans can also write letters to the editor of their local newspaper in opposition to the mine and can continue to let the Department of Environmental Quality and Governor Greg Gianforte know that we are sick and tired of foreign mine companies polluting and ruining our environment. Mines in locations as sensitive as the Smith should be held to a “Zero Risk” standard. This means the mine has to have zero risk to Sheep Creek, the Smith River and the ecosystems they support. Unless Sandfire can prove, with near 100% scientific certainty, that they can operate this mine in such a way, we do not believe this EIS or permit is acceptable.

Visit our “How You Can Help Save the Smith” page for more information.

For more information contact David Brooks at david@montanatu.org or Colin Cooney at ccooney@tu.org