This blog originally appeared as an Op-Ed in the Missoulian newspaper.
Like many Montanans, I jump at every chance to spend time on the Smith River. Growing up, it was a family tradition. My dad would load up the truck, throw in a hefty supply of Snickers and canned stew, and off we’d go to explore that remote and beautiful stretch of river.
We didn’t have any of the high-tech gear we have today – often just a sheet of clear plastic draped over our flannel sleeping bags. But I have vivid memories of the towering cliffs, the spectacular rock art, abundant wildlife and the giant trout that make the Smith River such a unique and beloved place.
That’s why it’s so troubling to learn that a Canadian mining company is proposing to dig a nearly mile-long exploration tunnel, called the Black Butte Project, at the headwaters of the Smith River. This isn’t a typical exploration project. The exploration tunnel will dig into sulfide minerals, which when exposed to air and water can create sulfuric acid in a process known as acid mine drainage. It’s highly toxic to fish, a threat to public health, and it can persist for generations.
Montana is no stranger to this problem. One of the worst sites for acid mine drainage is the Zortman Landusky Mine near Malta, where vast amounts of water are polluted each year with acid and heavy metals, and scientists have determined it will continue for hundreds of years, or “in perpetuity.” Taxpayers have been stuck with cleanup costs in the tens of millions, and state officials say there’s no end in sight to that fiscal black hole.
During the permitting process, mining companies often claim that water quality won’t be harmed, or they can mitigate the problem if it does. A recent study by a Butte mining engineer shows just how consistently they’ve been wrong. The study looked at modern mines across the western U.S. to see whether the water quality predictions made during the permitting process actually matched water quality impacts once mining occurred. It found that 100 percent of the permits predicted no water quality impacts, yet 85 percent of those mines with the potential for acid mine drainage/metals leaching and near surface water resulted in water pollution.
Once acid mine drainage occurs, there’s no easy fix. At the Berkeley Pit in Butte, over a billion gallons of toxic water must be captured and treated every year, and acid mine drainage will continue in perpetuity.
Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality has completed a “quick and dirty” environmental assessment to consider the potential impacts of the Black Butte Project on the headwaters of the Smith River. The environmental assessment isn’t adequate, as illustrated by the comments from the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, which call for further study. The EA is sorely lacking in fisheries data, hydrologic information, and water quality impacts analysis.
Everything about this project spells trouble. The DEQ should take a step back, and require a full environmental impact statement to evaluate the Black Butte Project. More importantly, it shouldn’t approve any project that will result in lasting pollution. The Smith River has a long history of careful public and private stewardship. Let’s be sure to continue that legacy and safeguard its waters.