The state will allow a Canadian company to tunnel down into the ground to explore for copper near a tributary of the famed Smith River north of White Sulphur Springs.
In a notice released Thursday, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality wrote that after reviewing the proposal by Tintina Alaska Exploration Company for the Black Butte Copper Project, the state believes the company can mitigate any negative impacts from the exploration work. That mitigation would be through “design, or enforceable controls or stipulations or both” imposed by DEQ or other governmental agencies.
“We took great care to respond to the public’s input on this proposal,” said DEQ Director Tracy Stone-Manning. “A lot of what we heard during the public comment process led to further protections for the land and water near the proposed exploration site.”
Some of those requirements include containing soil and rocks that may hold metals that contribute to acid mine runoff; having an archaeologist present to protect a prehistoric site that was identified; and weekly surface water and groundwater monitoring, with the results to be submitted monthly to DEQ.
Tintina employees Jerry Zieg and Nancy Schlepp said the company agrees with all of the mitigation measures required by the state, adding that they’re thrilled to have reached this “milestone.”
The exploration permit under the Final Mitigated Environmental Assessment doesn’t permit the actual mine; it only allows Tintina to build a “decline,” which will give people and equipment underground access to get a better look at whether it’s economically feasible to mine for copper there.
“Obviously, we are pretty happy to have this process reach this point,” said Zieg, who noted that they’ve been drilling and pulling out core samples of ore for the past few years to try to learn if it’s worth taking the next step with the decline. “We’re happy with the job DEQ did; they certainly did a more rigorous analysis of what our proposal is than we have seen in the past in Montana. That said, we think it is appropriate because our philosophy is to do everything we can to make sure there are no issues on our project in the future.”
Basically, the decline is a 5,200-foot-long ramp that goes underground. It will be 18 feet high and 18 feet wide on about 12,000 acres of public and private lands along Highway 89. The decline is large enough for trucks that will haul ore to the surface after it’s been blasted with dynamite or otherwise dug out. The ore will be hauled for processing to an as-yet undetermined location.
Before the exploration permit is issued, however, Tintina will have to post a reclamation bond with the state that will ensure compliance with various environmental laws. The amount of that bond hasn’t been decided, according to Warren McCullough, head of the DEQ permitting and compliance division.
“We expect to have that ready in the near future,” McCullough said.
Under the permit, Tintina will be allowed to pull out 10,000 tons of rock for bulk sampling for metallurgical testing.
The proposed surface disturbance would be 46.5 acres, all on private land, according to DEQ. If the company eventually applies for an operating permit for an underground mine, DEQ will prepare a more in-depth Environmental Impact Statement.
Tintina anticipates putting the underground materials it hauls out of the decline into two piles lined with a thick, non-permeable barrier. The “PAG” pile is of Potential Acid Generating materials and is estimated to include about 30 percent of the rock. The remaining materials go into the “NAG” pile, which is the Non-Acid Generating rock.
Water that falls on the rocks will be collected and treated if necessary. The PAG pond would have the capacity to store 1.9 million gallons of water, while the NAG pond would have a 4.1-million-gallon capacity.
If Tintina decides that it’s not feasible to develop the copper mine, the company will put the PAG rocks back into the decline, cover them with a concrete barrier, then put the other rocks on top of that and reclaim the site. DEQ believes that by burying the PAG, it no longer will create acid runoff.
About 4,500 people submitted comments on the mine, including Jim Jensen with the Montana Environmental Information Center. The statewide group is opposed to the mine, saying potential acid mine runoff from the disturbance could harm both the environment and the Smith River. MEIC, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Trout Unlimited, the Upper Missouri Waterkeeper and numerous private parties fear that the exploration work will drop water levels in Sheep Creek, which flows into the storied Smith River, and possibly send acid mine runoff into the popular fishery.
“I’m disappointed that the agency is either politically incapable or unwilling to say that there are some places that the risk is too high,” Jensen said. “DEQ says, ‘Trust us; we have new special protective measures.’ But they say that every time for every mine and the agency has failed every time.”
Bonnie Gestring with Earthworks in Missoula called for more rigorous review of the project, given the potential for acid mine drainage.
“A mile-long tunnel into acid-generating rock isn't a typical exploration project. It poses a significant risk to the headwaters of the Smith River,” Gestring said. “DEQ should take a more cautious approach with this project and conduct an Environmental Impact Statement to safeguard the Smith River watershed and its valuable fishery.”
DEQ officials, however, said they believe the required measures will protect the streams and groundwater. They added that it’s not a given that the rock will generate acid mine drainage.
“There would be a reverse osmosis treatment system on site,” said Herb Rolfe with DEQ. “We don’t think it will need to be used, but it’s a precautionary measure to have it on site to treat the water if needed.”
McCullough added that this is a “relatively small” underground operation at this point and that after fairly extensive testing the DEQ believes the potential for acid mine drainage is “pretty limited.”
Still, Jensen said the decline permit violates the Montana Constitution because it could contaminate water, even if it’s later treated.
“The agency should be preventing pollution – that’s what the Constitution requires,” Jensen said. “Acid mine drainage is a fact of science and nature. This is a massive, undertaking – a 30-foot-diameter hole that’s a mile long. If acid mine drainage is easy to stop once it’s started, we wouldn’t have these poisoned sites around the state.”
McCullough has heard those comments before, and said previous copper mines like Zortman Landusky and the Berkeley Pit operated under regulations that no longer exist and outdated technology. They also were open pit mines. Acid mine drainage at those sites means the water there must be treated “in perpetuity” — or forever.
“The Berkeley Pit and Zortman Landusky have no bearing on this,” McCullough said.
Still, MEIC will explore “every possible legal avenue” to prevent the mine from going forward, Jensen said.
Zieg noted that people in White Sulphur Springs overwhelmingly support development of the copper mine. The community took an economic hit when a local lumber mill shut down years back, and is still trying to recover.
So far, Tintina has spent at least $18 million in exploration costs. Based on their core samples, Tintina forecast that what it calls the “Johnny Lee deposit” could produce a single copper concentrate containing an average of 47 million pounds of payable copper metal per year during a 14-year mine life. That translates to 658 million pounds of copper, which at $3 per pound, would have a value of $1.97 billion.
“This mine creates good-paying jobs for friends and neighbors,” said Zieg, who grew up in White Sulphur Springs. “This community has been in pretty rough shape for a while, and this is one way we might be able to turn that around.”
Tintina wants to start building the decline this year, Zieg said, and projects that work will take about a year and a half to complete. Moving forward continues to hinge on investors, however, and Zieg noted that in his experience, people have been reluctant to support mining projects in Montana due to opposition from environmental and conservation groups during the past 30 years.
But Zieg senses that hesitancy is lifting.
“I would still say there’s a lot of reluctance to invest in Montana from those who don’t take the time to look at what we are doing,” Zieg said. “But when people sit down, talk to us and understand the project better, they’re more interested to get involved.”
Copies of the Final EA can be obtained on this DEQ Web page: www.deq.mt.gov/ea.mcpx.; by writing DEQ, by calling Kristi Ponozzo at 444-2813; or by sending an email addressed to DEQTintinaBlackButteCopperProject@mt.gov.
Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or email@example.com Follow Eve on Twitter @IR_EveByron