Update: Copper Mine at Headwaters of Smith River

This Fall 2015 we expect Tintina Resources, a mining exploration company, to submit an official application to the state of Montana to develop a copper mine in the Sheep Cr. river valley, a headwater of Montana’s famed Smith River. 
The Sheep Creek valley, with Black Butte in the left background.
In 2013/14, Tintina tried to obtain an “exploration” permit that would allow them to mine the same copper deposit, known locally as the Black Butte Copper Mine.

Read more about that proposal here, why facts and sound science didn’t support mining at Black Butte then, and how we took action to protect the Smith River and her tributaries by clicking here.

This June we attended a stakeholder meeting at Tintina’s headquarters in White Sulphur Springs. We listened to a full presentation on the scope of proposed mine, how the company believes it can mitigate any negative impacts to land or water resources, and took a tour of the actual proposed mine site.  To the company’s credit, they are being very candid in describing the proposed mine and their belief that this copper mine won’t pollute land or water resources around the Black Butte and Sheep Cr. watershed.
Stakeholder meeting and presentation at Tintina headquarters, White Sulphur Springs

Here are some facts we learned during our visit to White Sulphur Springs and the proposed mine site:

  • Tintina is partially owned by Sandfire Resources, an Australian mining company. Sunfire is most certainly interested in financially maximizing its significant investment in Tintina and the proposed Black Butte Mine.
  • The Black Butte Copper Mine proposal is actually two deposits, stacked on top of each other, together called the Johnny Lee Deposits, approximately 19 miles from the Smith River, but located in the middle of a primary headwater to the Smith called the Sheep Cr Watershed.
  • Total, the company expects 11.56 million tons of ore to be extracted, equaling approximately 910 million lbs of copper.
  • A nearby third deposit, named the Lowry Deposit, is located only a mile or two away. While Tintina didn’t commit to any firm intentions, it appears there could be future proposals to mine that deposit, and others nearby, after the Johnny Lee.
  • The reason Tintina and Sandfire are in the Smith’s headwaters is because the copper deposits are pretty darn pure; typical copper lodes are around 1% pure or less. The Johnny Lee deposits are 3-6.5% pure, pretty valuable by industry standards.
  • If allowed and operating, the Black Butte Mine will produce approximately 40 tons of ore per day, where about 10% is actually valuable, equaling about 10-12 articulated semi-trucks hauling from the mine each day.
  • Approximately 30% of the ore intended for extraction is laced with sulfide rock, meaning it has a high potential for acid generation (e.g., acid mine drainage).
  • Tintina says 50% of leftover ore tailings can be cemented as a paste and put back in the mine shafts underground, including potentially acid-causing tailings. The other 50% of tailings will stay in a lined tailings impoundment, which could be as large as 100 acres, and which Tintina says will ultimately be capped with a cement top and safely buried underground.
  • Tintina has designed an elaborate Land Application Disposal system for treating wastewater contaminated by tailings and sulfide-bearing ore. It claims that it can successfully treat any acid caused by mining, control any related type of contamination, and safely treat, evaporate, and/or discharge wastewater to groundwater with a 100% success rate.
  • Although modeling isn’t complete, Tintina admits that it will have to pump a certain amount of local groundwater to mine, although it alleges that the amount per day – as much as 30 gpm in the upper Johnny Lee deposit – will be negligible and in the long-run discharged, in treated form, back to local groundwater.
  • Tintina is also currently modeling the potential impacts of withdrawing groundwater to the adjacent surface waters of Sheep Cr and Little Sheep Cr., as well as local wetlands.

Below is a figure representing the spatial orientation of copper deposits at the Black Butte mine site:
A map depicting the Black Butte Copper Mine & Johnny lee deposits
As far as a timeline, we expect an official mine application to be submitted to the state of Montana early this Fall 2015. That application will trigger a full mine review by the Montana Dept. of Environmental Quality, as well as an environmental review and public input process.

Upper Missouri Waterkeeper will be ready to take a hard look at any proposal from Tintina. It is critical to the health of not only the Sheep Cr watershed, but the downstream Smith River and the strong local economy it supports (valued at approximately $7-10 million annually as-is), that facts and sound science 100% prove without a doubt that zero short or long-term ecological harm will come from a copper mine. Stay tuned!