Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks has weighed in on a proposed copper mine in the Smith River watershed, asking that the Montana Department of Environmental Quality consider potential environmental and social impacts to water, fisheries, wildlife and recreation.
Sandfire Resources America, the new name of the company formerly known as Tintina Resources, is currently in the permitting stage for the proposed Black Butte Copper Project. The White Sulphur Springs-area mine would provide a major economic boost to Meagher County but has drawn opposition from conservation groups concerned about environmental impacts to a tributary of the Smith River.
Sandfire maintains that project design and modern mining engineering will safeguard the environment.
FWP and DEQ have discussed environmental analysis of the project as DEQ prepares an environmental impact statement. The statement will identify anticipated environmental issues with the project, alternatives and mitigations the mine would have to meet to comply with state law.
On Dec. 8, FWP submitted what is now being called an unvetted memo to DEQ. Submission of the memo did not follow internal approval protocols, FWP spokesman Greg Lemon said.
FWP rescinded that memo and sent a new one on Jan. 26. FWP provided copies of both memos to the Independent Record.
Lemon characterized the unvetted memo as a “misunderstanding of where the process is at with DEQ,” meaning that DEQ is in the scoping stage of environmental analysis. Scoping identifies broad environmental concerns that DEQ then looks at more closely. The unvetted memo proposes several mitigation measures that FWP believes are premature, Lemon said.
“On the Tintina mine, we want to be there and participate in that review process as much as we’re needed to, and we’ve been asked to provide information on the fish, wildlife and parks resources in the area,” he said. “We want to participate and we feel it’s our job not only as a sister agency but as stewards of those resources.”
The documents mirror each other in several sections, but the unvetted memo is also critical of DEQ enforcement and suggests that Sandfire be required to post an additional $10 million bond to protect water, recreation and wildlife.
“FWP can cite several examples where DEQ’s enforcement division has been unwilling to apply violations to a broad range of incidents for both point-source and storm water discharges,” the unvetted memo says. “In our experience, investigators have a great deal of latitude to make judgments on the severity of a violation and are frequently unwilling to issue violations that include fines.”
The unvetted memo says the $10 million suggested natural resource bond would “cover chronic and cumulative impacts or accidents affecting aquatic systems, recreation, wildlife, and would address additional demands on FWP resources associated with the proposed mining activity.” It also suggests that Sandfire develop a conservation fund to finance impacts to fish, wildlife, habitat and recreation.
“I think it’s obvious from the revised letter we didn’t feel that (criticism) was appropriate to send to DEQ,” Lemon said. “It was a mistake we corrected in part with the revised letter.”
FWP’s suggested mitigations will come as it gets more information on the project, he added.
DEQ spokeswoman Kristi Ponozzo said her agency has and will continue to work with FWP and other sister agencies to tap needed expertise and information.
The memos cite the same general suggestions for DEQ to consider during scoping: water quality and quantity, fisheries, recreation, wildlife and enforcement.
For water quality and quantity, FWP asks for consideration of long-term and cumulative impacts that may fall below permit standards but still impact the environment.
“While the mining permit will likely require the applicant to comply with discharge permits … it would be beneficial to consider whether there could be chronic impacts that fall below enforceable threshold but could still cause negative impacts to aquatic resources if they occur for extend periods of time,” the revised memo says.
With demands on water in the watershed, high quality water is critical, FWP says. The Smith is also susceptible to periods of low water and high temperatures, and FWP recommends DEQ look at the vulnerability of the fishery with the potential of additional stressors.
FWP raises concerns over impacts to recreation due to expected growth in the area to fill mining and other related jobs.
“Some of the potential impacts are social in nature as demographics change due to the influx of workers from diverse backgrounds and cultures,” the revised memo says, listing a lack of understanding of fish and game laws and ethics, increased camping and trespassing as potential examples, and related issues with increased demand on enforcement.
FWP goes on to suggest DEQ consider impacts to wildlife on multiple fronts. An increase in population could increase conflicts with local landowners and result in more vehicle collisions with wildlife. Some issues could be avoided with education, the revised memo says.
Last year’s detection of federally protected grizzly bears in the area also deserves consideration, FWP says, and an operational plan should provide protections.
The revised memo closes saying that FWP remains committed to working with DEQ at developing mitigations at the appropriate time.