4. Smith River

The Smith River is threatened by a massive proposed copper mine that would have a significant potential to degrade the Smith’s water quality and harm its nationally-renowned wild trout fishery.

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Don’t let a massive copper mine degrade the Smith River’s water quality and wild trout fishery!
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Photo credit: Pat Clayton - Fish Eye Guy photography

Location: Montana

The Smith River is threatened by a massive proposed copper mine along Sheep Creek, one of its major headwaters tributaries. If the mine is built, it has a significant potential to degrade the Smith’s water quality and harm its nationally-renowned wild trout fishery through acid mine drainage, contamination with toxic heavy metals, and nutrient pollution. Not only is the Smith one of the most cherished rivers in Montana, but it also generates $4.5 million annually for outfitters and surrounding communities who play host to thousands of recreationists.

The River

The Smith River flows for 60 miles through a stunning limestone canyon between the Little Belt and Big Belt Mountains, emptying into the Missouri River just south of Great Falls. It is home to thriving populations of brown and rainbow trout, with some remnant populations of native westslope cutthroat trout in tributaries such as Tenderfoot Creek. Among the wildlife species that frequent the Smith River corridor are bald and golden eagles, osprey, black bear, moose, elk, and mule and whitetail deer.

Owing to its smooth flowing water and good road access at either end, the Smith is one of the few multi-day river trips in Montana that provides floaters of all ability levels with opportunities for backcountry solitude, superb fishing, and stellar camping. In fact, the float down the Smith River is so popular that it is Montana’s only permitted river. In 2015, 8,096 people applied for just 1,175 float permits. Recreational fishing and floating generate an estimated $4.5 million annually in revenue for outfitters and surrounding communities such as White Sulphur Springs.

The Threat

Tintina Resources, Inc. (a Vancouver, B.C.-based mining company controlled by an Australian mining corporation and New York hedge fund managers) is proposing to develop a huge underground copper mine on 12,000 acres of private land adjacent to Sheep Creek, a major headwater stream that produces half of the tributary-spawning trout in the Smith River drainage. The so-called Black Butte Copper Project would be located approximately 20 miles north of the community of White Sulphur Springs, an economically hard-pressed community that largely supports the construction of the mine because of the 200 jobs that boosters say it would create for the 11-year lifespan of the mine.

Tintina claims the mine site is home to the, “third highest-grade copper deposit in development in North America.” However, removing that copper from the ground poses serious environmental risks. First, the copper lies in a massive sulfide-ore body, which, when exposed to air and water, can produce acid mine drainage. There is also the likelihood that the mine will leach toxic heavy metals such as copper into nearby surface waters; produce discharges of wastewater high in nitrates that result from the use of blasting compounds; and contaminate drinking water sources with arsenic. Finally, groundwater would have to be pumped from the mine, which could end up partially dewatering Sheep Creek or its tributaries, thus drying up trout habitat.

Mining has left a toxic legacy in many of Montana’s rivers for over a century. Among the rivers that have borne the brunt of historical mining impacts are the Big Blackfoot of A River Runs Through It fame and the Clark Fork, 120 miles of which is designated as the nation’s largest Superfund site due to contamination by toxic heavy metals. The cost to clean up the Clark Fork River alone is estimated at over $1 billion and is expected to last 20 years. Modern mines have also taken their toll on local streams, and their legacy is found in publicly-funded multi-million dollar cleanups that are occurring, or must occur, at mines throughout Montana that have been shuttered in recent years, including: Zortman-Landusky near Malta, Beal Mountain near Anaconda, Kendall near Lewistown, Basin Creek south of Helena, and possibly the Troy Mine near the Kootenai River.

What Must Be Done

Tintina is expected to submit its mining plan to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) toward the end of 2015. That will trigger a permit review as well as an Environmental Impact Analysis that could take at least two years to complete. Before the mine can be built, Tintina has to secure a state mining permit, state water quality discharge and stormwater permits, possibly a “310” permit under the Streambed and Streambank Preservation Act, and a federal Clean Water Act permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Governor Steve Bullock must send a clear signal to Tintina that for its Black Butte mine to win state approval, it must be designed using standards never before required of mines in Montana due to the industry’s tradition of repeated failures. Any mine approved in the headwaters should ensure with 100 percent certainty that it can eliminate the possibility of drying up or polluting Sheep Creek and the Smith River with acid mine drainage, nitrates, or toxic heavy metals.

How You Can Help

Tell Governor Bullock: Don’t let a massive copper mine degrade the Smith River’s water quality and wild trout fishery! Take Action »

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