Will We Save Our Smith?

While the Canadian mining company Tintina Resources, Inc. works to win the hearts and minds of the local population of White Sulphur Springs promising jobs, money, and no pollution concerns, the local University of Montana chapter of MontPIRG are gathering on the Clark Fork river today for what they are calling a “Rally on the River” to oppose the mining proposal in the Smith River drainage. While I won’t be tubing the urban assault with the college kids, I do think it is necessary to talk about the proposed mining of the Johnny Lee copper deposit near Montana’s picturesque Smith River.

The proposed Black Butte Copper Mine would tap into an estimated 1.97 billion dollar’s worth of copper that sits hundreds of feet below ground in deposits near the Smith River tributary Sheep Creek, according to Tintina. The thought of that kind of money on the table is looking good to the small community of White Sulphur Springs. The environmental concerns regarding the impact of the proposed mine on the health of the Smith River are looking dire to those who love Montana’s only permit-access river, and the miles of wild water it holds. While the folks at Tintina Resources, Inc. are promising a state of the art mine with minimal environmental impact, the road to sterile rivers is paved with the promises of clean mines of the past. 

Here’s what we know: Tintina’s proposed mine shaft would begin a half-mile from Sheep Creek, an important tributary near the start of the Smith River that adds up to a third of the total water into the river. The proposed mine shaft would angle through the water table, under Sheep Creek, which would require groundwater to be pumped away from the mine, potentially causing groundwater levels to drop. Likewise, the copper-sulfide ore extracted from the mine could potentially create sulphuric acid when exposed to water and air. Another concern comes from the additional mineral deposits (arsenic and strontium) that could be exposed by the proposed mine and find their way into groundwater.

For their part, Tintina’s representatives claim that exploration at the depth of the mine shows it would have no effect on the water levels, though no mine on record has attempted similar procedures without damaging effects. Tintina’s hearts and minds campaign seems to be working in White Sulphur Springs, where the mayor and a majority of townspeople support the proposed mine. The prospect of jobs in the community, which has lost the economic benefit of their last large business, a lumber mill that 1980s, is enough to convince them. Embracing the boom and bust cycle of resource development is nothing new to rural Montana, where ghost towns still stand as testament to the state’s long history of mining and moving on.

To outsiders, the campaign seems to follow an age-old routine: Hire a local to put on a trusted face, promise jobs and a booming economy for the years that the mining operation is in effect (by Tintina’s own estimates this mine would run for 14 years.) and leave whatever long-term environmental impacts in their wake when the mine runs dry.

While I don’t claim to be a mining scientist, nor a dyed-in-the-wool environmental activist,  I can claim to be a fishing fanatic with an understanding of the impact that past mines have had on the rivers I love. For me, one factor seems most important when explaining the proposed mine to anglers and outdoors enthusiasts. Sheep Creek is the spawning ground for more than half of the Smith River’s fish, according to estimates by Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Is that worth risking for the short-term boom of the proposed Black Butte Mine?

For more information on the proposed Black Butte Mine, and the organizations that oppose it, visit Save Our Smith, whose video accompanies this post. For information directly from Tintina Resources regarding their proposed project, visit Tintina Resources – Black Butte Copper.

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