On January 15, 2014 Montana DEQ gave approval to Tintina Alaska Exploration, Inc. to develop an “exploratory decline” outside White Sulfur Springs for the Black Butte Copper Mine. Digging this decline is the first step in potentially developing full-scale mining, similar to cutting off a slice of turkey while it’s still in the oven for a taste test. In authorizing this project DEQ failed to perform the type of probing, thorough review of environmental impacts that our laws require, choosing to perform a cursory, expedited Environmental Assessment instead of a thoughtful, probing and comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement. The Smith deserves better.
As we wrote last August 2013, the problem with the proposed Black Butte Mine’s exploratory decline is both the project itself – the beginning of a hardrock mining operation – and its location – in the headwaters of Montana’s Smith River. Developing this exploratory mine shaft is almost guaranteed to result in depletion of already strained groundwater supplies, as well as likely result in acidic water being discharged to groundwater that is hydrologically connected to headwaters of the Smith.
So this initial decision, without any further guaranteed development, itself threatens the Smith. And, should full-scale mine development occur, the corresponding impact on water flow in nearby Sheep Creek will be dramatic, and likewise the volume of likely acid mine drainage (AMD) pollution from the exploratory decline will be dwarfed by AMD from any mine. We are unaware of any type of scientifically proven “mitigation” technique that can fully address hardrock mining pollution. We oppose this project because of the Smith’s special value to Montana, because this proposed activity threatens local water quality, quantity and fishery health, and because hardrock mining itself is an inherently polluting industrial activity that creates acid mine drainage, a form of water pollution that destroys natural, local watershed equilibrium, threatens community health, and typically costs untold millions in terms of taxpayer dollars for clean-up that occurs in perpetuity.
The Smith River, Montana’s only permitted river, employs hundreds from guides to state park employees to Gary with the Heaven on Earth Ranch. This intact, clean watershed also supports many local folks’ livelihoods: ranchers who need clean, available water to irrigate, stores in White Sulphur, and fly fishing shops. Likewise, a clean Smith provides valuable recreational opportunities – there were nearly 5,000 floater in 2012 according to MT State Parks. Now, an international company wants to industrially develop a clean landscape, sell Montana’s copper, keep its profits and leave locals, the state and taxpayers with a nearly inevitable pollution legacy. As we have seen in the recent West Virginia toxic chemical disaster, all it takes is one mistake to ruin a special landscape and community health.
Some places are too special, to0 pure, and to0 pristine to risk for corporate profits. West-Central Montana’s Smith River is just that special place.