Protecting one of Montana’s most beloved rivers and renowned trout fishery from mine pollution and dewatering.
The Smith River is renowned for its blue ribbon trout fishery and spectacular scenery. The Sheep Creek drainage is responsible for 55% of the tributary spawning. Due to enormous public demand, the Smith River is the only river in the state managed by Fish Wildlife and Parks through a permit system. The annual revenue generated for the state economy from fishing and recreation on the Smith in 2011 was $1.7 million.
This beloved Montana river is at risk from a small Canadian company that seeks to develop a major copper mine, called the Black Butte Project, along Sheep Creek at the headwaters of the Smith River in central Montana.
In 2013, the mining company submitted a proposal to dig a mile-long, 18’ high by 18’ long, tunnel as part of exploration activities in the area. The Black Butte project is particularly troublesome because it will extend into sulfide minerals, which when exposed to air and water can react to form sulfuric acid in a process known as acid mine drainage.
It would also need to pump large volumes of groundwater to keep the tunnel dry during exploration activities, which would lower the groundwater table, and put at risk adjacent stream flows. The Smith River and Sheep Creek already suffer from low flows in most years, putting pressure on downstream water users and preventing the fishery from reaching its full potential.
Earthworks and the Montana Environmental Information Center filed a legal challenge in March 2014, asking the court to require more rigorous analysis of the likely impacts of the project, including dewatering and water quality.
“Our livelihoods are dependent on stream flows and the quality of the water,” said Mike Geary, Lewis and Clark Expeditions. “You want DEQ to be as rigorous as possible, and I don’t believe they’re beyond reproach in this case.” Bozeman Daily Chronicle, March 17, 2014.
In response to the litigation, Tintina withdrew its proposal for a large exploration tunnel, saying that it would obtain the information by less invasive measures. The company plans to complete a feasibility study, and submit a full plan of operations.