If you treasure the Smith River, now is the time to act.

A proposed underground copper mine along Sheep Creek in the Smith River’s headwaters took a big step forward when the Montana Department of Environmental Quality released a draft environmental impact statement on March 11.

The Smith River | Photo by Pat Clayton

For those of us who love rivers and call Montana home, March is the time of year when hope springs eternal. Not just because the sunshine comes with newfound warmth and the deep snows of winter finally begin to melt, but also because it’s when we find out if we won a permit to float the Smith River – Montana’s only permitted river.

For the 19th consecutive year when I checked my drawing status, I was greeted with the dreaded word, “unsuccessful.” Fortunately, I have lots of friends who also put in for Smith River permits, and one of the lucky ones already has invited me on a trip this fall.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is a proposed underground copper mine along Sheep Creek in the Smith River’s headwaters took a big step forward when the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) released a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) on March 11. Despite the fact that the so-called Black Butte copper mine would be located in the Smith’s headwaters and the rock in which the copper ore is located is highly prone to creating acid mine drainage, the DEIS concluded the mine would have “no impact to water quality, air quality or aquatic resources.”

A harmless mine. Talk about an oxymoron.

The Montana DEQ’s conclusion stands in stark contrast to what our own expert mining consultants have told us. In a guest blog published in August 2016, Tyler Shepherd, who spent his entire professional career in the mining industry, wrote that the Black Butte copper mine would “irreparably contaminate the Smith River.”

Smith River Area Map (Click to enlarge)

The copper mine is being proposed by Sandfire Resources America, a subsidiary of Perth, Australia based Sandfire Resources. It would be located on 1,888 acres of leased private ranch lands adjacent to and underneath Sheep Creek, the most important trout spawning tributary in the entire Smith River system. The mine site is located about 19 miles upstream from Sheep Creek’s confluence with the Smith River. Since Sheep Creek moves along at about four miles per hour, that means any mining pollutants would reach the Smith River in less than five hours.

So, when Sandfire says there’s no need to worry about the mine impacting the Smith River because it’s almost 20 miles away, call me cynical.

Now that the draft EIS has been released, the public has until May 10 to submit written comments. The Montana DEQ will host at least two public meetings at which they will present information and take public comment – in Livingston on April 29, and in White Sulphur Springs on April 30. We are urging to the DEQ to hold at least two additional public meetings, one each in Helena and Great Falls.

American Rivers and our partners have hired a team of expert consultants in the fields of hydrology, geochemistry, fisheries biology and environmental law to carefully pour over the draft EIS to determine if it has any fatal flaws. As soon as our team finishes its review, we will draft our written comments and send action alerts to our members and activists so you can submit your own informed comments on the proposed mine.

How you can help protect the Smith

If you would like to receive our action alerts on the proposed Black Butte copper mine later next month, please sign up here. During the scoping phase of the EIS, American Rivers generated more than 8,000 public comments. Now that the draft EIS has been released, we’ve set a goal of generating 20,000 comments opposing this dangerous mine.