The Helena City Commission on Wednesday agreed to consider a resolution encouraging absolute protection of the Smith River from mining activities.
The decision to consider the resolution on Oct. 17 was supported by three commissioners: Robert Farris-Olsen, who proposed the resolution, Ed Noonan and Andres Haladay.
The resolution states “any proposed mining activities that could potentially affect the health and vitality of the Smith River should be viewed skeptically and should not be permitted unless the applicant can demonstrate with 100 percent certainty that the proposal will not harm the river.” Farris-Olsen said he would revise the wording to say "absolute" certainty instead of "100 percent."
Commissioner Dan Ellison said he was “uncomfortable” telling other elected bodies how they should function and the commission telling the state how to do its job.
Ellison also questioned focusing on conservation issues outside of the commission’s jurisdiction.
The Smith River is located in Meagher County, and White Sulphur Springs, the nearest town to the proposed mine, is more than 70 miles from Helena.
The Black Butte Copper Project proposed by Tintina Resources Inc., based in Canada and controlled by Australian-based Sandfire Resources, would take place near the river.
On Monday, Tintina Resources submitted its response to the deficiencies noted in its proposal by the state Department of Environmental Quality.
The state has 30 days to respond to deficiencies contained in 62 pages of concerns identified by the DEQ.
“While this first deficiency review is extensive, many of the comments fall under the category of needed corrections and clarifications, which dramatically increased the length of this letter,” stated the DEQ’s introduction to the noted deficiencies.
Mayor Jim Smith expressed uncertainty with the language about absolute certainty and asked if DEQ’s issuance of a permit would provide the certainty sought by Farris-Olsen.
Whether absolute certainty would be met, Farris-Olsen explained, would depend on the language of the mining permit.
The proposed mine has the potential to impact more than the river, he continued and said the resolution was intended to be sure Helena businesses were not harmed.
Mining in Montana has a history of devastating rivers, Farris-Olsen said, and added “this isn’t just about White Sulphur Springs. It’s about Helena’s economy.”
Noonan lent his support to advancing the resolution for more discussion and said his perspective was shaped by having grown up a couple of blocks from Silver Bow Creek.
“Since the late 1800s, mining crews dumped mining wastes into on-site streams and wetlands near mining operations. These activities contaminated soil, groundwater and surface water with heavy metals,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency website that discusses the agency’s Superfund Program that includes about 26 miles of stream and streamside habitat.
Noonan said he grew up playing in the sludge of the creek and added it wasn’t for the city commission to show that the mine will harm the Smith River but for the mining company to show that the mine won’t degrade the river.
John Shanahan, Tintina president and CEO, was at the commission meeting, as was Nancy Schlepp, the company’s public relations director.
Shanahan, who now lives in Helena, told the commission he was involved in an underground copper and silver mine in Lincoln County from 2008 until the middle of 2015. Low metal prices halted mining, he said.
“My experiences have shown that through responsible development, through modern mining techniques and a lot of just care, you can have both,” he said of mining and the environment.
The mine was located about a mile from a proposed wilderness area, he noted.
A tailings facility was near a critical bull trout stream, he said and added, “At the end of the day, to know that a mining operation was there for 30 years and had no detrimental effect on the environment is pretty important and makes you feel very good about what you do.”
“What attracted me from those experiences at Revett (Mining), what attracted me to come and join this company was to know you can do it and you can do it correctly and you can have both. People in Meagher County can have jobs the rest of the country and Montana can in fact recreate and enjoy the beauty and the pristine nature of the area,” Shanahan said.
“That’s the challenge, and I believe the way that this company has evolved, I certainly believe that the way that this project’s been designed you can have both.”
He asked to allow DEQ to complete its process and said no one in the room wants to see any degradation of the Smith River or Sheep Creek.
“They may come back and say, ‘I’m sorry, it just isn’t possible’ and we would accept that,” Shanahan said of what the outcome of the DEQ review may be.
And if DEQ gives its approval, the next step will be preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement that will take 12 months and offer additional opportunity for public comment, he continued.
Among those who raised concerns about the proposed mine was Jim Jensen, executive director for the Montana Environmental Information Center.
“I have been involved in environmental protection work here in Montana for nearly 40 years. And I have heard this exact, same speech from every mine developer for all of those years. ‘We have new technology and we’ll be fine,’” Jensen said.
“Modern mining, whether it’s modern in 1976 or ‘77 or whether it’s modern today, they’re all the most modern. I went to the Zortman and Landusky site before mining began there. Many of the same consulting firms worked for Pegasus (Gold, Inc.) that are now working on this Black Butte project, and they made the representations that things would be fine. Hydrometrics wrote in the record there is no possibility of acid mine drainage at Zortman and Landusky. Yet it’s one of the worst cases of acid mine drainage in the history of mining in North America,” he asserted.
“He was one of the best scientists in Montana at the time,” Jensen continued.
“These people were not lying. They were making representations based upon their belief, but it is the consistent and undeniable truth that every single mine has had problems beyond what the developers had anticipated and what they had disclosed,” he said.
Jensen noted the “very large-scale, extremely well managed and responsible” copper mining by Montana Resources in Butte and that by Stillwater Mining south of Big Timber and Nye as he spoke of community values.
However, he also said the community has placed higher values on the inherent and intrinsic worth an the economic activities surrounding rivers such as the Smith and Blackfoot.
The city commission is expected to act and be part of the voice when there are differences on values, Jensen said.
“Values are played out in the political arena,” he added and called for the commission to move forward with its consideration of the resolution.