“I believe this proposed mine will be another catastrophic event in the history of Montana hard rock mining,” said Curtis Thompson, a Cascade County resident who owns property on the Smith River. Thompson has good reason for that worry. Last week a national news story reported that “11 out of the 12 hard rock mines that began operating in Montana since 1980 failed to meet the water quality predictions made during permitting, often resulting in drinking water contamination and harm to fisheries.”
Thompson was one of more than 12,500 people who recently commented to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), with the majority of the comments worried about the risks a large copper mine in the headwaters of the Smith poses to this icon watershed. Although DEQ is still reviewing all those comments on the draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the Black Butte mine, we know from the public comment hearings that Montanans have expressed their concerns over many common problems with a new mine. Having read the DEIS and consulted with numerous experts in hydrology, fisheries ecology, geochemistry and mine engineering, we know that people’s worries about the likelihood of this mine dewatering or contaminating tributaries of the Smith River for generations or centuries are legitimate. So, too, are fears about the loss of recreation jobs, poisoning of the wild trout fishery, transportation and infrastructure impacts, and the prospect of another foreign-owned company making off with Montana resources and profit while leaving behind a mess for everyday taxpayers to clean up.
We know from the DEIS that any mining in these Smith River headwaters would be in rock that has a high risk of producing very acidic water contamination that could last for hundreds of years after the mine is gone. As one expert who reviewed the geochemistry said, “I can’t believe Montana is even considering allowing this to be mined.” We know the proposed 80-acre paste tailings impoundment, that will hold toxic waste forever, is experimental and has never been used at this scale. Similarly, we know from looking at the Australian-owned company’s own hydrologic data that they’ve grossly underestimated the amount of water that will enter the mine and have to be treated. They could be dealing with three times the amount of water they’ve estimated in the DEIS. That water will come out of Smith River tributaries. Bottom line: the Black Butte mine is likely to use, pollute, and treat a lot more Smith River water for far longer than the DEIS guesses it will.
Additionally, the DEIS includes a reclamation plan for the mine but provides no information about the cost of that work and no plan for inevitable expansion, including onto nearby public land where the company holds hundreds of federal mineral leases. How can Montanans, or the DEQ, know that reclamation would be adequate to protect the Smith River forever, if we don’t know the associated costs? That’s especially troubling given the all-too-common practice of out-of-state mining companies leaving Montanans with multi-million dollar clean up bills while the CEOs make off with millions.
Along with thousands of Montanans over the past five years, we have followed each step of this mine permitting process very closely. We have raised specific, scientifically-based concerns throughout the application process and during each public comment period. The current DEIS shows that our concerns have been largely ignored and that this mine plan still poses unacceptable risks to the Smith River, its major tributary, its prized fishery, and, in general, our Constitutional right to a “clean and healthful environment.” As the only river in our state to earn the protection of a permitted floating season because of its incredible fishing, floating, camping, hiking, cultural, and scenic values, the Smith gets into people’s blood and hearts. That’s why over 10,000 people apply for about a tenth of that number of permits each year. It’s why the Smith’s float season helps sustain hundreds of outdoor recreation-related jobs and an estimated $10 million in annual revenue. It’s why we strongly urge Governor Bullock and his DEQ to do their job and protect the environmental quality of the Smith River. We will do everything possible to make sure that happens.
David Brooks of Missoula is the executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited, and Colin Cooney of Bozeman is the Montana Representative for Trout Unlimited.