An environmental group is raising the alarm because a central Montana mining project is now in the hands of offshore owners — owners who, they say, won’t care about protecting Montana’s environment as much as Montanans do.
“Montanans have seen this before many times. Out-of-state foreign mining companies coming in, extracting resources and then taking off.”
Derf Johnson is staff counsel for the Montana Environmental Information Center.
“We have that bust economy and then we have a very serious mess on our hands to clean up. And so I think you will see a large majority of Montanans who are really concerned about the fact that this company is now majority foreign-owned.”
He’s talking about Sandfire Resources, a company based in West Perth, Australia, which last week increased its stake in Tintina Resources, the company proposing to dig a copper mine north of White Sulphur Springs.
Sandfire now owns 57 percent of the project, up from its previous share of 36 percent. Conservationists have been waging a campaign to stop the project, called “Save our Smith”, because they fear the mine could leach acid and other contaminants into the Smith River, one of the last pristine rivers in the state.
Jerry Zieg, Tintina’s vice president of exploration, puts a completely different spin on the sale. He says it validates the soundness of their plans, and reflects Sandfire’s desire to get the mine into production.
“SandFire is obviously very very interested in advancing the property and bringing it to development. They felt like if they could gain a greater stake, then they would be able to make sure that that process kept going in a timely manner.”
Tintina Resources promotes itself as a local company, with storefront offices in White Sulphur Springs, and regular outreach efforts to build support among the locals. Zieg says, in fact, residents were told last summer that the Australian company was interested in owning a majority stake in Tintina.
“The original deal when Sandfire invested last year gave them the opportunity to gain a majority interest, and everybody in the community has been aware of that all along and have had no problem with that concept.”
Regardless of how much local support Tintina claims to have, Derf Johnson says the bottom line is that major decisions about the mine — such as how to safeguard the environment and clean up any spills — will be made on the other side of the world.
“What this says is that now the decision making is going to be left up — all the major decision-making will be left up to people who are located approximately 8,000 miles away in Australia, and that is uncomfortable for us because we’re concerned that those folks may not have Montana’s best interests at heart, and the Smith River in particular.”
Despite being mostly foreign-owned, the mine would still come under federal and state environmental regulations. Tintina spokeswoman Nancy Schlepp says the latest controversy shows that critics of the mine proposal won’t be happy, no matter what happens:
“When we were pretty much a local small company the rhetoric was around us being too small and new to get this done, even though we have a lot of experience internally. And now that we do have a really well respected mining company involved, the rhetoric has changed to it being too big and too far away.”
What neither side mentions is that the 47 million shares that Sandfire bought last week weren’t local to begin with. They were owned by Quantum Partners, part of the George Soros financial empire, based in New York and registered in the Cayman islands. Still, the purchase means that a single foreign company now owns a controlling interest in the project. That wasn’t the case before.
Tintina Resources has not yet filed for a state mining permit. It will be years before its proposed Black Butte mine begins producing copper ore, and there’s no telling who will own it by then.