HELENA – Environmental officials on Thursday approved plans for a copper mine in central Montana that marks a major milestone in a long-running dispute. The approval likely will be challenged by environmental advocates worried about the mine’s proximity to one of the state’s most popular recreational rivers.
The head of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality told The Associated Press that the permits for the Black Butte Copper Project near a tributary of the Smith River are the most stringent ever issued for a hardrock mine in Montana. DEQ director Shaun McGrath cautioned against judging the project against historical mines in the state that are now Superfund sites.
“I can tell you that our team here at DEQ has really been motivated to put this application through the wringer to determine whether it indeed would comply with state laws,” he told AP.
The state agency issued a mine operating permit, a water discharge permit and an air quality permit to Tintina Montana Inc., a subsidiary of the Australian mining company Sandfire Resources. The underground mine would be located north of White Sulphur Springs and 19 miles (31 kilometers) from the Smith River.
It’s been nearly five years since Tintina applied for a mining permit. Supporters say the mine will create jobs and improve the tax base in Meagher County. The mine would be operational for an estimated 13 years and employ about 240 workers for most of that time.
Conservationists, sporting groups and environmental advocates have campaigned to shut down the project, concerned that it will harm the Smith River, a blue-ribbon fishery that is so popular the state holds an annual lottery for permits to float the river.
“We get that the Smith River is truly a state treasure,” McGrath said. “We understand the level of interest in this decision across the state and we understand that there’s a lot of concern and trepidation that some have with the idea of a copper mine going into the Smith River basin.”
But the mine proposal meets and in some instances exceeds the state’s legal requirements, and the plan includes measures to avoid environmental harm to the river, he said.
The 110-mile (177-kilometer) river runs through a limestone canyon and a scenic valley before flowing into the Missouri River south of Great Falls.
The proposed underground mine is on private land and would extract 15.3 million tons (13.8 million metric tons) of copper-laden rock and waste over 15 years — roughly 440 tons (400 million metric tons) of copper-rich concentrate a day.
The concentrate would be trucked in, on average, 18 closed shipping containers per day to freight trains at Livingston or Townsend. The concentrate would be shipped overseas for processing, the permit applications state.
To protect the river and its watershed, state officials are requiring Tintina to augment and supplement water flows affected by the mine, monitor the water quality and temperature and to take steps to prevent nitrogen levels from rising in the summer.
The DEQ’s permit also requires Tintina to store water that comes into contact with acid-producing minerals in a double-lined, cemented tailings facility, to backfill mined areas with a mix of tailings and cement as work is completed and to seal mine tunnels and entryways to prevent groundwater flows across acid-producing minerals.
The state will set and review bonding requirements to ensure it has enough money to remediate the mine if Tintina fails to do so. Bonding amounts will be set within 40 days.