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Montana’s Smith River has again made a national advocacy group’s list of most endangered rivers in the country due to a proposed mine near its headwaters.

American Rivers added the Smith to its list of "America's Most Endangered Rivers" for the third time, citing Sandfire America’s proposed Black Butte Copper Project north of White Sulphur Springs. Criteria for the list include a major decision regarding the river, as the Montana Department of Environmental Quality is currently in the environmental analysis phase of permitting the mine and is expected to release a draft environmental impact statement later this year.

“This is a critical year for Montanans to decide what kind of future we want for the Smith,” said Scott Bosse with American Rivers. “We’re calling on every Montanan who loves the Smith to weigh in on the draft environmental impact statement for the Black Butte copper mine. It’s now or never.”

Black Butte is proposed near Sheep Creek, a tributary of the Smith. Ore would be extracted from underground, processed on site and then transported by rail to coastal shipping terminals, where it would go to Asia for smelting.

Sandfire and other supporters of the mine tout the economic impact and say safeguards will be in place to protect the environment.

Opponents of the mine hired a technical review team that analyzed the project. Based on that information, Black Butte has the potential to produce acid mine drainage and harm the Smith, Bosse believes, although he acknowledges the hypothetical nature of the report pending completion of DEQ’s analysis.

“Our technical consultants are saying that this mine is a lot more dangerous than Sandfire is making it out to be,” he said. Bosse cited past statements from the company to investors pitching the region as a “mining district” with 50-year potential.

“An industrial mining complex is absolutely the last thing we need in the headwaters of the Smith,” he said. “It’s important that we not look at Black Butte in isolation.”

The Smith faces a number of issues, including chronic dewatering and recent algae blooms, causing concern about excess nitrates. Bosse notes that those concerns are serious but reversible, and not subject to the current permitting decision.

Sandfire President and CEO John Shanahan described the permitting process as “rigorous.”

“There’s a process we’re going through and the data is there and the rules are very clear, we can’t have an effect on water quantity or quality specifically to Sheep Creek and there will be no effect on the Smith River,” he said.

Opponents have brought concerns about potential dewatering of Sheep Creek. Shanahan says that Sandfire purchased upstream water rights on the creek that will counter loss of flow due to mining operations.

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American Rivers also mentions in the report its support of a ballot initiative that has come under scrutiny recently. The initiative intends to prohibit permitting of new mines that require perpetual water treatment. However, mining interests questioned whether the original language would also restrict expansion of existing mines. 

The initiative committee, Yes for Responsible Mining, submitted updated language last week in an effort to clarify an exemption for current mines. The groups said Monday it was withdrawing the first initiative petition and will proceed as they wait for the secretary of state and attorney general to review the new language. 

“Clearly the intent is to grandfather in existing mines. There was never any debate about that,” Bosse said.

Shanahan, while not opposing the intent, believes the ballot language lacks clarity.

“If the headline was ‘no perpetual water treatment,’ we don’t have a problem with that -- our project does not require perpetual treatment,” he said. “When you look at the proposed language it is purposely ambiguous and purely designed for litigation.”

The Smith returned to American Rivers’ report after a one-year hiatus. It was named to the report the previous two years.

The Smith is the only Montana river named in the report. The other rivers are the Big Sunflower River in Mississippi, the rivers of Bristol Bay in Alaska, the lower Rio Grande in Texas, the south fork of the Salmon in Idaho, the Mississippi River Gorge in Minnesota, the Colville River in Alaska, the middle fork of the Vermillion River in Illinois and the Kinnickinnic River in Wisconsin.

Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin

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