We are proud and wowed by the hundreds of Montanans who braved the weather to attend four public hearings and voice concerns about the mine being proposed in the headwaters of the iconic Smith River. Our Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) heard your clear message: Montanans want to protect the Smith River’s wealth of sustainable virtues — recreation, angling, scenic beauty, cultural treasures, and outdoor economy — rather than allow a foreign mining company to risk those values and our grandchildren’s legacy for short-term profit. The DEQ is now reading through the more than 10,000 written comments people have submitted raising the same concerns we heard at the live hearings.
In the Great Falls hearing, Mayor Bob Kelly insisted on a bigger reclamation bond for the project in case pollution from an “environmental event” at the mine reaches the Missouri River. “The city of Great Falls needs to be formally declared as having standing as an injured party and be able to seek and receive payment for reclamation and reparation of the damage that may occur to our water source,” said the mayor. He was one of many people who recognized the threat this mine poses to downstream interests including clean water, fish, irrigation, property values, human health, and the recreation economy.
In White Sulphur Springs, Smith River landowner and engineer Warren Hopper expressed concern about the tailings liner leaking over time. “In my line of work, I have seen double- and even tripled- lined impoundments eventually leak.” Other opponents reminded DEQ of the track record of modern mines shuttering when the global market dictates, leaving locals with environmental contamination and taxpayers with the cleanup costs.
For most Montanans, mines like Black Butte are a threat to good jobs rather than a boon. In Helena, more than 200 people showed up to the hearing, many coming straight from having paraded drift boats and rafts sporting “No Smith River Mine” signs around the Capitol and rallying against the mine on the lawn. At the hearing, representatives from leading businesses such as Simms, Orvis and Costa spoke of the role the outdoor economy plays in Montana and their businesses. Lifelong outfitters and guides told DEQ that this mine makes them worry about their livelihoods. “I have built a business of the Smith River. I have watched my business put kids through college. We provide good paying jobs. Why risk it?” asked Brandon Boedecker, owner of Pro Outfitters.
Finally, in Livingston, we heard concerns of forever impacts mines like the Black Butte project leave behind after shipping Montana’s natural resources and profits overseas. Tim Stevens, of Livingston, said of the mine, “The impacts are going to be forever,” and thus, bonding, and analysis of impacts on things like roads and water quality, wildlife and the local way of life also needs to be “forever.”
Though the scoping period ended Nov. 16, this is not the last time for concerned citizens to make a difference. Next spring, be prepared for DEQ to release a draft document detailing the possible environmental impacts of the mine. The public will have the opportunity to review and comment on those impacts and the course DEQ should take with this mine proposal. This will be another crucial time for Montanans to speak up and make sure this mine presents zero risk to the Smith River watershed.
Montana Trout Unlimited would like to thank the DEQ for hosting these hearings and listening to the concerns of the public. Now it’s time for the DEQ to take those public concerns seriously.
David Brooks is executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited.