Following lengthy public comment, the Helena City Commission adopted a resolution Monday evening calling for assurance that a proposed Meagher County copper mine will not harm the Smith River.
Commissioners Robert Farris-Olsen, Ed Noonan and Andres Haladay voted in favor of the resolution while Mayor Jim Smith and Commissioner Dan Ellison opposed.
The vote comes more than three weeks after Farris-Olsen first pushed the resolution, citing the negative impact of potential degradation of the Smith would have on people and businesses in Helena. The language calls for skepticism in viewing Tintina Resources’ proposed Black Butte Copper Project, and asking for “absolute certainty” that the mine will not adversely affect the river.
The proposed underground mine is located about 19 miles from the Smith but would include ore extraction underneath Sheep Creek, a major tributary. Tintina is currently seeking an operating permit with the state.
The resolution is an expression of the commission’s opinion and does not put city resources towards opposition of Black Butte. The measure has still generated significant public interest and debate in both Lewis and Clark and Meagher counties.
Those speaking in favor of the resolution Monday hammered mining’s legacy of pollution and failed companies while proclaiming the Smith as a natural wonder deserving of protection.
“In my wildest imagination I never conceived a scenario where a mine could or would be built in this pristine place,” said Smith River cabin owner Leslie Pierce-Hopper, “My hope was always to leave it better than we found it for future generations.”
Jim Jensen, executive director of the Montana Environmental Information Center, a major opponent of the mine, balked at the idea that the Montana Department of Environmental Quality would adequately ensure Black Butte will not pollute, citing failed mines the agency has permitted in the past.
Helena resident Johnathan Mathews compared a hard rock mine in the Smith’s watershed to mining in the heart of the Cathedral of St. Helena.
Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-East Helena, noted the fluidity of environmental laws, saying that environmental protection is only as good as the most rigorous regulations that are subject to the latest political whim.
Opposition to the resolution has come from officials in Meagher County and White Sulphur Springs with letters from both the county commission and city council there criticizing the resolution. Others in both counties have questioned the appropriateness of the Helena commission taking on an issue more than 70 miles away and potentially straining the business relationship between Helena and White Sulphur Springs.
“Your resolution, well obviously well intentioned, is a direct attack on our economy and our future economy,” White Sulphur Springs City Councilman George Kirkwood told the Helena commission.
People in Meagher County see Tintina as a reputable employer taking the steps to develop a clean mine, he said, and the mine is anticipated to bring a third more people to the area.
“Many people in White Sulphur and county of Meagher will be taking their business elsewhere,” Kirkwood said.
Brian Obert, executive director of the Montana Economic Developers Association, supporting business interests in Lewis and Clark, Meagher and Broadwater counties, expressed concern about a potential business rift putting his organization in a tough position.
“What I worry about is an economic backlash between the communities,” he said.
Representatives with Tintina pushed the message that the mine can operate and the environmental integrity of the river be maintained with modern mining practices. President and CEO John Shannahan agreed that legacy environmental degradation is a problem that deserves attention, but asserted that his company through philosophy and regulation will develop responsibly.
Several current and former environmental engineers and project managers testified, but were split on what risks the mine potentially posed.
Debate between the city commissioners hinted at how the vote would come down.
Elllison, while noting his ties to conservation organizations and saying that he might voice a different personal opinion, did not believe the mine fell within the city’s prevue.
“Our roles and responsibilities are clearly laid out in the charter and getting into environmental decision-making by state agencies (is) just not what we do,” he said.
Ellison further criticized the resolution, stating the “absolute certainty” standard is unattainable.
Smith said he waded through hundreds of pages of DEQ documents and was satisfied with the thoroughness of the environmental review and pointed out the many ways the city is regulated and permitted by the state.
Haladay described the resolution as a “litmus test” as everyone who read it seemed to have a different interpretation of what it meant. The fact that billboards in Helena support the mine as well as local interest is enough to make it a Helena issue and warranting a commission position.
“This resolution establishes nothing. It doesn’t establish absolute certainty standard. It doesn’t tell DEQ to do anything,” Haladay said. “It is a statement from a people’s body representative of a certain jurisdiction in the state that I’m convinced based on the communications we’ve received and the information we have, has jurisdiction to comment on this proposal.”
Farris-Olsen opened the meeting saying he was unconvinced after a recent visit to the mine site that tributaries of Sheep Creek and the Smith by extension were not jeopardy. He concluded the resolution discussion saying he appreciated the input from everyone and was convinced by the majority of Helena commenters that the resolution was the right thing to do.
“When Tintina advertises in Helena and tries to convince Helenans that we should support their mine, I think we have a duty to see what Helenans want,” he said. “What I’ve learned tonight is Helenans do not want to see this mine because of the risks to the economy and to the Smith River.
“Even if it is the best technology, we’ve seen the best technology fail over and over again. The Smith River is a place where we shouldn’t let it happen again.”