What’s next for the proposed Smith River copper mine?

Despite serious flaws, the Montana DEQ still plans to release its final environmental impact statement on the Black Butte copper project early this fall.

Smith River | Photo by Pat Clayton

Now that the public comment period has closed on a draft study of the environmental impacts of a proposed copper mine in the headwaters of Montana’s Smith River, a lot of folks have asked us – what’s next?

Before answering that question, let’s recap what the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) heard from the public during the 60-day comment period that ended on May 10. A total of 12,600 people submitted comments to the Montana DEQ, at least 90 percent of whom opposed construction of the controversial mine. The state initially reported receiving only 2,500 comments, however recently it was discovered that another 10,000 comments submitted through third-party websites got stuck in its spam filter.

So on that front, we crushed it. Thanks to each and every one of you who sent in comments.

Smith River Area Map

That said, the public comment period wasn’t a popularity contest, as mine proponents and state regulators like to remind us. If it was, the mine proponent, Sandfire Resources America, would have folded up its tent and headed home to Perth, Australia, and the Smith River would stay just the way it is – not perfect, but damn near.

The biggest news to come out of the public comment period was that the proposed Black Butte copper mine was exposed for what it is – a risky experiment built on false assurances.

How do we know this? Because American Rivers and our conservation partners hired a team of top-notch mining and natural resource experts who examined the draft environmental impact statement with a magnifying glass. Here are a few things they discovered:

  • Despite Sandfire’s claim that the mine tailings would be rendered non-flowable by mixing them with a cement paste and therefore not pose a threat to surface or groundwater, the cement would start dissolving in acid in a matter of weeks.
  • The DEQ’s conclusion that the mine wouldn’t pose a threat to water quality or fisheries in Sheep Creek and the Smith River was based in part on the flawed assumption that the double liner underneath the mine tailings would never tear and never leak. The fact is, ALL liners eventually leak.
  • The DEQ’s conclusion that the mine wouldn’t dewater Sheep Creek (the Smith River’s most important rainbow trout spawning tributary) was based on a flawed model that underestimated how much water would have to be pumped from the mine.
  • The DEQ didn’t address the fact that Sandfire holds 525 mining claims on 10,000 acres of adjacent federal lands. Consequently, it didn’t assess the cumulative impacts that dramatically expanded mining operations would have.
Smith River | Photo by Pat Clayton
Smith River | Photo by Pat Clayton

Despite these serious flaws, the Montana DEQ still plans to release its final environmental impact statement on the Black Butte copper project early this fall. Once that happens, the DEQ can then issue a Record of Decision (ROD) that approves the application as submitted, approves the application with modifications, or denies the application if it doesn’t comply with Montana’s laws, specifically those pertaining to water quality.

While we are hoping that the thousands of comments Smith River advocates submitted and the technical comments our team of consultants submitted convince the DEQ to deny Sandfire the permit it needs to build the mine, we are prepared to carry on this fight if the state abrogates its responsibility to uphold Montana’s environmental laws.

When we say the Smith River is too precious to risk, we mean it.

Whatever the outcome, you can rest assured that Sandfire will not start building its proposed copper mine in 2019, as it is telling its investors. This fight was always going to be a marathon, not a sprint.