Garrett Smith, a geochemist for the Department of Environmental Quality, answers questions about the proposed copper mine near the Smith River Monday evening during a public meeting about the mine.

Garrett Smith, a geochemist for the Department of Environmental Quality, answers questions about the proposed copper mine near the Smith River Monday evening during a public meeting about the mine.

Thom Bridge, thom.bridge@helenair.com

A public meeting in Helena over a proposed copper mine near White Sulphur Springs took on a familiar narrative Monday, with opposition citing potential risks to the iconic Smith River and supporters saying the project can be both economically beneficial and environmentally friendly.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality hosted its third of four “scoping” meetings for the Black Butte Copper Project proposed by Tintina Montana, Inc. Scoping is the first step in drafting an environmental impact statement, in which the state is required under law to consider environmental impacts and propose alternatives for the project.

Hours before the meeting opponents of the mine towed drift boats and rafts sporting “No Smith River Mine” signs around the Capitol. For a few minutes in the subfreezing weather, 25-30 opponents lined the northern edge of the grounds and displayed signs on the front steps while awaiting additional opposition bused in from Missoula and Bozeman.

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A protestor against the proposed copper mine near the Smith River grabs a sign Monday evening after fellow demonstrators drove a procession of drift boats around the State Capitol.

A protestor against the proposed copper mine near the Smith River grabs a sign Monday evening after fellow demonstrators drove a procession of drift boats around the State Capitol.

The mine’s link to the Smith River centers on its proposed location 17 miles away near its tributary Sheep Creek. Opponents, largely citing mining’s legacy of environmental impacts in the state, fear that the project risks the river and its renowned floating and fishing. The Smith is Montana’s only permitted river with long draw odds for a short float season.

Opponents continued to outnumber proponents as the meeting got underway with more than 200 people in attendance at the Radisson Colonial Inn and more than 30 offering oral comments on the project.

Mike Moore with Simms Fishing in Bozeman said he was “absolutely confident the state and Tintina has done everything they can” to mitigate potential impacts but human error is inherent in any project. A loss of a resource such as the Smith could mean a loss of outdoor-related brands that call the state home, he said.

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Mike Moore, vice president of sales for Simms Fishing Products,

Mike Moore, vice president of sales for Simms Fishing Products, speaks against the Black Butte Copper Mine at a meeting in Helena.

Outfitters on the Smith offered their pitches for either disallowing the mine while touting the economic impacts that float trips provide.

“Why risk it? You have a beautiful river that provides jobs and recreation in the state of Montana,” outfitter Brandon Boedecker said.

Fellow outfitter Joe Sowerby said he is particularly concerned that the hydrology of the river and underground aquifers are not fully understood. Cold water offers refuge for trout during the hottest months and tributaries such as Sheep Creek are primary spawning grounds, he said.

Malcolm Gilbert said he believes wildlife and fisheries studies needed additional scrutiny and noted the absence of study of endangered species impacts.

Many speakers offered personal anecdotes about floats on the river.

“This is a river that we will never have again in its beauty and purity should anything go wrong with this mine,” Ann Wilsnack.

Other opponents questioned the longer term plans for mining the area beyond the roughly 14-year predicted mine life, and whether Tintina or another company purchasing mineral rights would continue resource development for decades.

Several speakers threw their support behind the mine as well.

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Pat Kiem voices his support for the Black Butte Copper Mine during Monday's meeting.

Pat Kiem voices his support for the Black Butte Copper Mine during Monday's meeting.

Brian Obert with Montana Business Assistance Connection said he has seen nearly a dozen proposed mines in the last 12 years, and this is the first he felt comfortable could deliver the jobs and economic benefits it proposes.

Webb Brown with the Montana Chamber of Commerce believed the project will allow both mining and recreation to coexist. The mine would allow some younger families to stay in White Sulphur, he said, and DEQ must do its job to analyze the project from a scientific standpoint.

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Meeting attendants listen to Sen. Terry Gauthier voice his support for the Black Butte Copper Mine during Monday's meeting.

Meeting attendants listen to Sen. Terry Gauthier voice his support for the Black Butte Copper Mine during Monday's meeting.

Dave Galt said that family owning land along the Smith is satisfied with the safeguards and transparency Tintina has presented, and that the mining industry in Montana has not gotten enough credit for steps taken and laws supported to regulate for environmental safeguards.

Republican Sen. Terry Gauthier gave his support citing the state's need for tax revenue.

Democratic Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell gave her caution, pointing to her district and the Superfund cleanup of East Helena.

DEQ has held public meetings in White Sulphur and Great Falls and will host an additional public meeting in Livingston on Nov. 7

Scoping comments may also be submitted electronically to deqtintinablackbuttecopperproject@mt.gov, or by mail to the following address:

Craig Jones, Department of Environmental Quality, P.O. Box 200901, Helena, MT 59620-0901.

Comments are due by Nov. 16.

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

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Natural Resources Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter / Assistant Editor for The Independent Record.

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