Montana DEQ permits high-risk mine in the Smith River watershed despite flawed environmental analysis


March 13, 2019


David Brooks, Montana Trout Unlimited, 406-543-0054, [email protected]

Scott Bosse, American Rivers, 406-570-0455, [email protected]

Montana Department of Environmental Quality permits high risk mine in the Smith River watershed despite flawed environmental analysis

Every year at this time thousands of Montanans and their families are preparing to float on one of the state’s most treasured rivers.  This year, just as those folks are dreaming and planning prospective Smith River trips of a lifetime, Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality (MTDEQ) has risked the health of that fabled river by permitting a foreign company to mine copper in its headwaters.

Despite widespread public opposition from a strong majority of Montanans and well-documented concerns expressed by scientists, landowners, and a coalition of conservation organizations, the MTDEQ has finalized an environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Black Butte copper mine in the headwaters of the Smith River.  The final EIS permits the mine, while ignoring more than 12,000 public comments opposing it and a wealth of evidence presented to DEQ showing a high risk of long-term pollution and dewatering of the Smith River and its most important tributary, Sheep Creek.  Citizens and conservation organizations plan to challenge this bad decision, which risks one of Montana’s most treasured rivers.

Smith River landowner Lezlie Pearce-Hopper was taken aback by the DEQ’s decision.  “In my wildest imagination I never conceived a scenario where a mine could or would be built in this pristine place.  My hope was always to leave it better than we found it for future generations.”

 Australian-owned Sandfire Resources (SFR.V) proposes to build the large-scale copper mine adjacent to and underneath a critical tributary of the Smith River.  Sandfire plans to utilize untested technology to permanently store millions of tons of acid-producing mine waste.  Sandfire has also made clear that it intends to expand the mine to create a 50-year mining district, and has already acquired the mineral rights.

“The DEQ’s decision to permit Sandfire’s mine is a direct threat to my business,” stated Brandon Boedecker of PRO Outfitters. “My outfitting operation is dependent on clean water and wild country, and the DEQ apparently thinks that a copper mine is more important than the Smith River and the folks that depend on it. They’re wrong.”

The draft EIS for the mine was released in spring 2018.  The draft EIS lacked critical information, used flawed data, relied on weak methodologies, and failed to acknowledge numerous risks to water quality and quantity that the mine poses to the Smith River watershed, which already suffers from insufficient flows in most years.

A coalition of conservation organizations, including American Rivers, Earthworks, the Montana Environmental Information Center, Montana Trout Unlimited, and Trout Unlimited hired five independent experts to review, evaluate and comment on the draft EIS’s analysis of mine engineering, hydrology, geochemistry, and aquatic biology.  Based on the experts’ findings and conservation organizations’ review of the draft EIS, they strongly urged the DEQ to select the “No Action” alternative, meaning that the department would deny Sandfire a mine permit.

“Today we learned that despite an EIS that was shown to be woefully inadequate, the DEQ gave Sandfire the go-ahead to build its controversial mine, with only minor changes that do little to curtail the substantial risks it poses to water quality, water quantity, and the Smith River’s nationally renowned wild trout fishery,” said David Brooks, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited.  “In doing so, DEQ discounted the concerns of thousands of Montanans who submitted comments asking the agency to protect the Smith River for future generations.”

Approving the mine plan in the final EIS has kickstarted the next process in the conservation groups’ efforts to protect the Smith River.  “We will move our efforts from the administrative process, which we have fully participated in at every stage, to the legal arena,” confirmed Brooks.  “We are disappointed but not terribly surprised by DEQ’s decision.  We are working with our legal team on several litigation options that we will pursue regarding the many ways this EIS fails to protect the Smith River.”

The conservation groups have 60-90 days to challenge MTDEQ’s final permit decision in State District Court.

“Dirty Water Rule” Threatens Trout and Drinking Water

Clean water is unquestionably important for people, fish, and wildlife. More often than not, what is bad for fish is bad for our communities.  That is certainly true of the “Dirty Water Rule” released yesterday by the EPA and touted by the Trump Administration.

This new rule removes protections from millions of miles of headwater streams and wetlands nationwide, the very places that provide our drinking water and are the life source for our trout streams. In Montana, most of our streams run full with snowmelt in the spring, diminish throughout the summer and fall, only to run full again the following season. The upper stretches of most of these streams, the headwaters, the wetlands that sustain summer flows, the true origins of all our treasured rivers are now fair game for polluters.  Today’s new rule lifts reasonable regulations on polluters and development of many of the sources of clean water in our state for the first time since the Clean Water Act passed with broad support almost 50 years ago.

“We cannot overstate how far this sets us back when it comes to protecting our water,” said Chris Wood, president and CEO of Trout Unlimited.  Montana Trout Unlimited executive director David Brooks added that “This is the most severe attack ever on clean water and the most successful and scientifically-sound water protection law in the nation.”

Everyone learns at an early age that water runs downhill. When someone pollutes upstream, the poison doesn’t just stay there. It trickles, or in some cases like our own Clark Fork River, floods and impacts downstream communities. Our headwater streams are the source of our water supplies, yet the Environmental Protection Agency is ignoring the best available science and putting both public health and our fisheries at risk. While drafting the new rule, the EPA ignored a report from its own science advisory board that the rule was not grounded in good science. A number of former and current long-serving EPA employees are also filing a complaint that EPA leaders ignored science, dismissed concerns within the agency, and barred employees from opposing or commenting on the process or the outcome. For those of us who believe sound policy should be based in reason, the decision to remove these protections seems rash and arbitrary. (See articles in the NY Times and on TU National’s website.)

Montana TU is dedicated to protecting and conserving our clean water both now and for future generations of fish and anglers and we will continue to stand against efforts to enable polluters. Safeguarding our state’s coldwater resources doesn’t just ensure our trout streams remain healthy, it also preserves public health, natural areas, and Montana’s sporting traditions, heritage and outdoor economy. Today’s decision is a final rule, which means there is no further comment period or public review. The EPA and Trump Administration have brazenly ignored the comments of MTU, conservation groups and outdoor industry businesses here at home and nationwide, as well as the public.  However, Montana TU is continuing to review the final rule and may have no choice but to join other conservation groups, including Trout Unlimited, states, and communities in challenging this harmful rule.

FAS Map shows LWCF dollars in action on Montana rivers

Montana Trout Unlimited is advocating for dedicated, permanent, full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). This federal program has been critical for the protection of important cold-water habitat and for securing public access to our land and water in Montana and across the country. The LWCF, which uses revenues from offshore drilling to fund conservation and recreation projects on public lands, has been essential in developing more than three-quarters of Montana’s Fishing Access Sites (FAS). Montana currently has over 350 FAS locations that are used daily, by residents and visitors alike, for recreational access to our lakes and streams. These access points are an important part of Montana’s rich tradition of outdoor recreation. 
We recently released this new interactive FAS Map, showing current and potential water access locations, to show the need for this important funding. A permanently fully-funded LWCF would help secure potential new access points and protect critical habitat. It could also be used to improve established FAS locations in need of better facilities. 
Here is the link to the FAS Map on our website.
You can read more about the importance of a fully funded LWCF in these recent new stories:

Position Announcement: Outreach Coordinator

MTU’s Outreach Coordinator will enjoy a diverse variety of tasks falling primarily under the Marketing/Communications and Outreach headings.  We seek an experienced, self-motivated, personable individual interested in helping with all external communication needs.  MTU’s outreach includes print and digital media production, social and paid media design and placement, event planning and staffing, as well as face-to-face meetings, phone calls, and other exchanges between staff and volunteer leaders, members, partner organizations, and businesses.

Our Outreach Coordinator will be the main point of contact between national Trout Unlimited’s Volunteer Operations team and MT Chapters.  This position entails regular statewide travel to facilitate chapter trainings, and attend and help with chapter events.  All MTU staff contribute to the daily operation of our Missoula office, especially interacting with visitors and general inquiries.

The Outreach Coordinator will work closely with our other staff to keep abreast of conservation, policy, and on-the-ground work, as well as assisting our development efforts as needed.  The successful candidate will work full-time out of our Missoula office.

DUTIES AND RESPONSIBILITIES (not an exhaustive list)

  • Engage and educate chapter leadership on their regular needs such as financial reporting, membership/recruitment/retention, event planning, and TU tools for successful chapter and volunteer operations.
  • Oversee MTU’s website maintenance and updating. Develop a monthly, online newletter/organizational update to members.
  • Work with MTU program staff to develop and implement a marketing plan, as well as a plan for regular social and paid media outreach.
  • Administer annual Youth Conservation and Fly Fishing Camp – solicit participants, recruit and vet volunteers, interact with parents, organize camp lodging, food, transportation, equipment, daily schedule, tours, etc., and supervise camp.
  • Grow MTU’s Montana Brewshed Allianceâ across the state in partnership with chapters.
  • Oversee events like the annual conservation briefing for Montana fishing guides/outfitters.
  • Schedule, design, layout, and produce quarterly newsletter – Trout Line.
  • Schedule (date, location, agenda, special presentations/tours) and help plan quarterly State Council meetings in coordination with hosting chapters.
  • Coordinate outreach/education, such as Blackfoot River Fund tabling at the Kettlehouse Amphitheater.
  • Develop, order and oversee distribution of MTU-logo’d merchandise.
  • Assist MTU’s development staff with special events and donor outreach.


  • Bachelor’s degree in communications/marketing-related field required.
  • Prefer five years of professional experience in outreach, communications, and/or marketing.
  • Experience with nonprofit and conservation organizations a plus.
  • Knowledge of Montana geography and fisheries, water quality, and/or water quantity restoration encouraged.
  • Superior interpersonal skills and ability to work constructively with diverse partners, community stakeholders, business leaders, volunteers, and people of all ages and backgrounds.
  • Excellent written and oral communication skills required.
  • Experience with media relations and public outreach both digital and traditional.
  • Ability to work independently while managing complex projects.
  • Willingness to travel within the region as necessary.
  • Ability to provide own transportation may be required. Mileage reimbursed.


Please upload a letter of interest, resume, and three professional references here via Submittable by October 1, 2019.

MTU offers competitive salary and full, excellent benefits package.

MTU is an Equal Employment Opportunity & Affirmative Action Employer pursuant to Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act & Vietnam Era Veterans Readjustment Assistant Act.

MTU hires staff without regard to race, color, religion, national origin, age, gender, sexual orientation, marital status or disability.