About the Mine

A map of the mining claims Sandfire has acquired on public land adjacent to the mine site. (Map by Maggie Althaus)

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, 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.

Smith Mine Fight Timeline (Bill Pfeiffer)

What is the current status of the mine permit?

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. MTU and our partners filed a legal challenge to the permit in Montana District Court due to the water quality and water quantity risks. In 2022, the District Court agreed with our argument that DEQ did not adequately consider the risks to the Smith in granting the permit. The Court vacated the permit and Sandfire/Tintina has filed an appeal with the Montana Supreme Court. This case will most likely be heard in 2023.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

How can I help?

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. This fight is now headed to the Montana Supreme Court. 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 [email protected] or Colin Cooney at [email protected].