The company exploring near the headwaters of the Smith River for a potential copper mine met with river outfitters in Helena on Wednesday.
Tintina Resources Inc. organized the meeting to update outfitters and Trout Unlimited on the status of exploration work and what current testing has revealed. Drilling and testing has provided Tintina with preliminary data, and the company told the group that many of the initial tests show a low chance of creating acid mine drainage if modern technologies are used.
“Projects like this suffer from a lack of or erroneous information,” said Jerry Zieg, vice president of exploration for Tintina. “We feel like our assessment has been very sound, and somehow we need to translate that confidence to other folks.”
The company still needs to do more significant drilling and testing before it can move forward, he said.
Earlier this month, Tintina withdrew its application to build a decline, or tunnel, to survey the Johnny Lee copper deposit north of White Sulphur Springs. Environmental groups sued the company and the Department of Environmental Quality, alleging that the decline went beyond the activities allowed under Tintina’s exploration permit. The company withdrew the request for the decline, with Zieg saying in an earlier interview that Tintina could gather the needed sampling through less invasive drilling.
Hydrologic and geologic testing shows little chance the mine would impact groundwater, Tintina geologist Alan Kirk told the group. All discharge would be treated, and testing showed the effect on groundwater would only go to the edge of nearby Sheep Creek, a tributary of the Smith.
“It’s almost impossible to have an effect,” Kirk said.
“We can’t operate if it looks like we’ll contaminate Sheep Creek,” Zieg added.
About half the mine tailings would go back beneath ground and be sealed, while the mine would store the rest and eventually cap and reclaim the site.
Testing on much of the waste rock from core samples showed a low chance of producing acid mine drainage, said Tintina geochemist Lisa Kirk. The minerals surrounding the sulphur, which creates sulfuric acid when combined with air, work to neutralize much of the acid produced.
One core sample did test higher for creating acid, and further testing would indicate the overall composition of the minerals for the entire site, she said.
Although they expressed their appreciation for Tintina bringing the meeting, many said the story was one they’ve heard before at other mines that eventually caused pollution.
“I’ve had the same assurances at all mine projects at this stage,” said Steve Gilbert, former guide on the Smith for 20 years. “They’re not going to tell you there’s problems. If all we had was history to look at, I’d say I still have a large dose of skepticism.”
The lack of trust went beyond mining companies and included DEQ. The agency has failed in its enforcement responsibilities when mines have polluted in the past, Gilbert said.
“DEQ doesn’t work for the people, they work for industry,” Gilbert said.
While they indicated they believed Zieg and the others came in good faith, attendees asked what would happen if Tintina decided to sell. The board members of Tintina live out of state, with four living in Canada.
“There’s always that risk,” Zieg said. “Usually when mining companies buy another company they buy the management team as well, so more than likely I’d still be sitting here talking to you.”
To address concerns that the decision makers at Tintina do not live in the community, public relations specialist Nancy Schlepp said she planned to invite the board members to float the Smith with her this year. The float would give the board the opportunity to see firsthand how important the resource is to Montana, she said.
Despite what they called a productive dialogue, the lack of information about the mine still left some attendees skeptical and concerned.
“I feel like what we’ve heard today, there’s still too many questions to know when they don’t even know,” said Mark Aagenes, conservation director of Montana Trout Unlimited.
“I’m still skeptical, but it’s mostly because of the questions these guys can’t answer,” said Joe Sowerby of Montana Flyfishing Connection. “I’m trained by the failures of the past, but we’ll see this play out as we get more info. I am certain that if they’re wrong, the Smith is too special a place to find out.”