Earth is moving north of White Sulphur Springs – the result of a multi-year effort to open a copper mine here that has generated intense public interest for nearly a decade.
On Aug. 15, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality issued a mining permit for the first phase of the Black Butte Copper Project. The permit allows Sandfire Resources America, formerly Tintina Resources, to build roads and pads, and construct a small reservoir at it applies for future permits to tunnel underground and eventually mine and process copper-rich ore.
While a lawsuit filed by mine opponents is pending in district court, the company wasted little time after receiving the permit getting to work with contractors on site by Aug. 17.
“Life changed a lot on Aug. 15,” said senior vice president Jerry Zieg. “We’re past the permitting phase which is a phase where you spend a lot of time on the phone and sitting around waiting for things to happen. Now we’re just really really busy.”
Standing last week in this valley dotted by black angus and round bales, Zieg was joined by vice president of communications Nancy Schlepp and safety coordinator Chance Matthews as about 30 contractors moved material and shaped the hillside.
“For so many years I never appreciated that this project would reach this point in my lifetime, so it’s really neat to have the opportunity to see this end of the whole process,” Zieg said.
Both Schlepp and Matthews said they were proud to see the project underway. They wanted to bring jobs to Meagher County, but also believe the company needed to take a grassroots approach to garner local support.
“I’m so proud of the entire team and the approach that we’ve taken to get here,” Schlepp said. “I think it’s going to change the industry. I’m really excited to be putting people to work.”
“That’s the big thing is you should be skeptical, make us prove what we’re worth and just seeing how much this company did do that gives me a big sense of pride,” Matthews said.
The “discovery hole” was drilled in 1985 for the Johnny Lee Copper Deposit, named for a former homesteader. But the viability of actually opening a mine here did not gain traction until about a decade ago when landowners approached Zieg about pursuing development. In the years since the company was purchased by Austrailia-based Sandfire and worked its way through the often contentious public hearings and the permitting process.
Contention over Black Butte has borne out in recent years as public hearings drew strong debate between supporters and opponents.
Hearings in places such as Helena and Livingston drew the most disagreement, with opponents imploring the state to deny the permit over pollution concerns and pointing to investor pitches saying the area holds mining potential for decades.
The mine is located next to Sheep Creek, a major tributary of the iconic Smith River, and that proximity has spurred groups such as the Montana Environmental Information Center and Trout Unlimited to vehemently oppose it. Too often mining companies have exploited natural resources and left pollution behind that has both wreaked environmental havoc and been costly to clean up, and the Smith River drainage is too precious to risk, the groups say.
In June, mine opponents filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s decision to permit the mine and whether environmental analysis fully analyzed the risks.
“We’re aware they’re conducting surface activity at this point and they’re conducting that at their own peril financially,” said Derf Johnson, MEIC clean water program director. “Obviously we maintain this project should never be built without a permit that’s free and clear and we’re going to fight to the end on this. We’ve successfully beaten back mines by enforcing the law through the judicial system numerous times before.”
In addition to a lawsuit filed in Meagher County District Court, opponents are also intervening with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation as Sandfire seeks a change of use to lease water rights for the mine. Johnson does not believe the state adequately analyzed planned dewatering of Sheep Creek and mitigation measures proposed under the change.
“The claims are very strong that we’re bringing to the court over this for the analysis and the permit,” Johnson said.
Sandfire has touted environmental protection as a primary consideration in developing Black Butte.
“One of the greatest things for me at this stage is having the opportunity to put this project together in a most responsible and thoughtful way that meets today’s standards and requirements,” Zieg said. “I’m glad we didn’t do this 30 years ago because there were a lot of things different back in those days. The regulations were not as stringent, people’s mindsets were different and I think we’re doing a far far better job of it now than we probably could’ve conceived of 30 years ago and I’m very glad for that.”
The ore body includes some sulfide-bearing rock, which when exposed, can lead to acid mine drainage. However, the state found mitigation measures sufficient to comply with environmental regulations. Measures included encasing tailings in cement and placing much of them underground, modern processing facilities and techniques and continual monitoring of water.
For Zieg, the litigation is something the company anticipated.
“It’s one of those things where you have to pay attention to it and keep after it to make sure things come out the right way,” he said. “I think our position is very strong so I wouldn’t say I’m worried about it. But that said, we can’t just ignore it. We have to deal with it so we are.”
Supporters also tout the economic impact to Meagher County and the state will be significant – some estimates put revenues at nearly $2 billion – and say that new developments in mining techniques and regulations will provide jobs and protect the environment. At the final hearing in White Sulphur last year, all in attendance came out in support.
Some estimates predict about 130 people moving to Meagher County when the mine opens and nearly 50 additional kids in the school district which currently enrolls about 200 students.
“I would say that in this region people are overall excited,” Schlepp said. “They’re thrilled that we’re finally producing jobs. The community, however, does want to be really proactive in making sure that we now update subdivision regs and looking at what infrastructure we want to update to be proactive on that front and not be reactive.”
Sandfire expects to continue with surface work through the fall and winter. The company is currently working on bonding for phase 2 of the project, which is the construction of a “decline,” or tunnel to the orebody which will take a couple of years. In phase 3, the company plans to extract and process copper-bearing ore.
“I don’t know the exact number, but it’ll be a number of years before there’s payback on anybody’s investment,” Zieg said. “These are such long term projects and I’m amazed at the loyalty of investors we have.”
Although the lengthy process brings its share of frustrations, overall Zieg felt DEQ did a solid job working with Sandfire through environmental analysis and permitting. He hopes the company’s experience can be an example for future mining in the state.
“What we’ve shown here is you know what, these things can work together, you can permit a mine in Montana,” he said. “You can do it right, you can make this happen in a good way, and if you work with the regulators and vice versa, you can come out with a very positive outcome. You don’t have to have this sort of polarized approach to this.”
Photos: Work begins on the Black Butte Copper Project
Work on the Black Butte Copper Project outside White Sulphur Springs has begun. On Aug. 15, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality issued a mining permit for the first phase of the Black Butte Copper Project. The permit allows Sandfire Resources America, formerly Tintina Resources, to build roads and pads, and construct a small reservoir at it applies for future permits to tunnel underground and eventually mine and process copper-rich ore.
Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin
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