The state of Montana would claim rights to minerals and require a state lease for mining beneath a creek in Meagher County related to a proposed copper mine.

Tintina Resources’ Black Butte Copper Project near White Sulphur Springs proposes underground mining of copper-containing ore. Sheep Creek, a Smith River tributary, flows through the private land where the project is proposed.

Opponents of the mine approached the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation with evidence that Sheep Creek falls under the definition of a “navigable stream,” which makes the streambed, and minerals beneath it, owned by the state of Montana.

The agency agrees.

“It’s never been adjudicated but we have notified Tintina of this claim,” said DNRC Trust Land Division administrator Shawn Thomas.

Thomas explained a complicated framework that defines the creek’s classification. DNRC has evidence that commercial logs were floated in Sheep Creek around the time of statehood. Streams used for commerce at statehood fall under the “navigable” river laws, which essentially give the state legal standing to claim the streambed as state land and the minerals below it, he said.

Proposals from Tintina show a portion of one ore body below Sheep Creek, although the company and DNRC say it is too early to know the true extent of the ore body. Current maps delineating ore bodies do not necessarily show where mining will take place, they said.

“It’s sort of premature -- it’s really almost impossible to determine because of limited drill data,” Thomas said. “At this time we don’t have adequate information to pursue a lease.”

Thomas characterized the potential state claim as a “sliver of one area.”

If the state were to lease the minerals, approval would come via the Montana Board of Land Commissioners.

In an interview Jerry Zieg, Tintina vice president of exploration, said the company is not looking at the potential state claim as an issue right now.

“We acknowledge that a very small portion of mineral interest may extend directly under Sheep Creek, but we believe it is unproductive to engage in discussions regarding this question until we have completed enough testing to actually identify if there is in fact a mineable resource under Sheep Creek,” he wrote in a letter to DNRC.

Derf Johnson, with the Montana Environmental Information Center, which opposes the mine, said the state mineral interest challenges Tintina’s marketing of the mine as a purely private land project.

“It’s state trust land, state property, held in trust for the state of Montana, and characterizing it as private property is patently not true,” he said.

Black Butte has been controversial with MEIC and other opponents publicly campaigning against it, bringing concerns about potential pollution. Supporters see the economic potential and say that modern mining practices can protect the environment.

Johnson believes that the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, which recently launched an environmental impact statement as it considers permitting the mine, must evaluate the mine as a both private and public land project. He further questioned DEQ’s deeming of Tintina’s application as complete, saying the application was deficient for not including state mineral interests.

Johnson stopped short of saying MEIC would legally challenge the project over the concerns.

“I think at this point, we just want to see a really robust process so that Montanans have a much better idea of what is being proposed here,” he said.

Zieg disagreed with Johnson’s private-public characterization, saying the project centers on private land and the stream does not bisect the ore body.

“Until a resource is found under the stream, it’s not an issue of extracting anything from public lands,” he said. “If it comes to that point, we’ll be very open and straight forward,” about the plans.

DEQ’s Kristi Ponozzo said the issue is one her agency would likely consult with DNRC, and disclose in the environmental impact statement.

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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