On April 8, 2022, a Montana state judge ruled that officials with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality failed to conduct an adequate review of the proposed Black Butte mine on the headwaters of the Smith River. She ruled that the permit issued by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) was “arbitrary, capricious and unlawful.” This ruling will bear significantly on the viability of the Smith River mine, because without a permit, there can be no mining. Of course, the fight is not over. The judge’s ruling is almost certainly going to be appealed, and Sandfire (the company proposing to mine in the Smith headwaters) can always re-apply to the DEQ for an amendment or another permit. However, it’s worth celebrating this milestone, because the wind is now at our backs and the fight to permanently protect the Smith is one step closer to reality.
Broadly speaking, the judge ruled that the DEQ specifically failed to justify a number of aspects of the permit, including the management of the tailings storage facility, the review of the tailings storage facility, and alternative storage techniques for the tailings. DEQ failed to adequately explain or address these failures.
Most immediately, the judge has requested briefs from all of the parties by late May on the “remedy,” associated with her ruling (i.e. what the judge should do with the permit now that she has found it to be flawed). Additionally, once the district court proceedings wrap up, DEQ has already loudly proclaimed that it will appeal the ruling to the Montana Supreme Court, where another legal fight will have to take place. Should the Supreme Court uphold the district court order, Sandfire could potentially apply once again to the DEQ with an amended permit.
Read the full press release about this ruling: Smith River One Step Closer to Protections From Black Butte Copper Mine After Court Ruling.
Read the latest Smith River Defender from May 2022 for more information about this ruling and what comes next.
Montana’s Smith River is renowned worldwide for its clean water, rugged canyon scenery, and blue ribbon trout fishery. The Smith is Montana’s only permitted recreational river. The permitted section of the Smith River winds 59 miles through a remote canyon in the Big Belt Mountains. Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks classifies the Smith River’s fishery as high-value, owing to its bountiful population of rainbow, brown, westslope cutthroat, and brook trout. The canyon walls of the Smith also boast some of the best examples of Native American pictographs in Montana.
A small Canadian mining start-up, Tintina Resources, has partnered with Australian mining firm Sandfire, and has submitted an application to the state of Montana to build a massive copper mine at the headwaters of the Smith River, on the banks of Sheep Creek. You can read a critique of the comments here. The mine would drop below the water table, and Tintina would have to pump water out of the mine to keep it from flooding. The pumped wastewater would contain arsenic and other toxics. Tintina’s proposed copper mine is particularly concerning because it will mine through sulfide minerals, which when exposed to air and water can react to form sulfuric acid in a process known as acid mine drainage. Tintina is also planning a major expansion beyond their original permit application, and has purchased several mineral leases and claimed several forest service tracts. Montana has a long legacy of mining projects that have contaminated our rivers and streams. The Smith River is not a location for another failed mining experiment.
Our organizations have been present with our members at every public hearing and event surrounding the mine, submitted numerous technical reports to different agencies in order to influence the permitting process, held rallies to get the attention of the decision makers and the media, and in the process created a committed movement of people, from all walks of life and backgrounds, that would like to protect the Smith River forever.
The fight’s not over.
Updated October 2021
We’re in a new round of the same fight. In 2020, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality issued a permit for the mine, and we immediately took the agency to court for some very serious flaws in its permit that directly threaten the natural wonders of the Smith River.
We’ve also intervened in Sandfire’s attempt to acquire water rights for the project at the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. Thankfully, Sandfire cannot actually start mining unless it acquires these water rights and until it posts a reclamation bond for the actual mine. These processes could take years to play out, during which time we will continue our fierce advocacy on behalf of the Smith River and keep you updated on how you can help.
Places like the Smith River are rare and dwindling. If the coronavirus pandemic has shown us anything this past summer, it is that we desperately need places like the Smith River to nourish our souls and give us hope that better days lie ahead.
Download and read the latest Smith River Defender here. If you’re not on the mailing list, send us a message and we’ll add you.
The Battle for the Soul of Montana
A copper mine threatens the iconic Smith River. It will bring jobs and the copper needed for a renewable-energy future, but is it worth the risk to one of the last pristine waterways?