About 50 miles east of Helena, in White Sulphur Springs, residents are weighing the benefits that a new copper mine could bring to their community: about 200 new jobs along with millions of dollars to spur business growth. Opponents of the mine say Montana risks losing something even more valuable, one of its last unspoiled rivers.
This video posted on YouTube shows a group floating down the Smith River about a year ago, paddling canoes and kayaks through a canyon lined with pine trees.
The Smith is the only river in Montana where a permit is required to make the four day float trip, and it’s so popular the state holds a lottery for those permits. A few miles away, a Canadian company called Tintina Resources is preparing to apply for a different kind of permit: one that would let it dig an underground mine, that could yield hundreds of millions of dollars in copper and silver.
A few weeks ago, Tintina president and CEO Bruce Hooper took about two dozen White Sulphur springs area residents on a tour of the site where his company wants to mine the Johnny Lee deposit; named for the settler who first tried to mine it a century ago. Turns out, Hooper says, Johnny Lee just didn’t dig deep enough.
"The old Johnny Lee property and shaft is on the hill above the property above there," Hooper says. "He actually missed where the copper deposit was, which is a bit of a shame."
Tintina conducts these public tours of what they’re calling the Black Butte mine site on the first day of every month, hoping to convince residents to support the project. Before they boarded the vans for the ride to the site, though, Hooper and other officials sat down with their guests to explain how the mine will be dug, where the tailings will go, how wastewater will be treated, and perhaps most important, how they plan to keep acidic water from leaching into Sheep Creek, which lies directly over part of the mine, and is one of the sources of the Smith River.
Acid mine leaching is one of the major hazards of copper mining.
Nancy Schlepp is Tintina’s public relations director.
Schlepp explains, "Only the lower zone of the Johnny Lee goes a little bit into the area under sheep creek and it is 1,500 feet below sheep creek, and we have done extensive baseline water testing in that area, and there is very, very, minimal water at that depth, in fact there wasn’t even enough water to do a pump test at that depth, and so there is no connectivity between the surface water and the ground water at that level."
Tintina promises it won’t repeat the mistakes of past copper mines, which have left nearby rivers devastated by acid and metal pollution. Derf Johnson doesn’t buy it. Johnson is staff attorney for MEIC, the Montana Environmental Information Center, which adamantly opposes the mine.
"Recently a study came out from permit applicants for mining proposals all across the west," Johnson says. "And 100 percent of them guaranteed that there would be no water quality problems. Eighty-five percent of them ended up having water quality problems."
Johnson’s group and another environmental advocacy organization called Earthworks have partnered to drum up opposition against the Black Butte mine, under the banner "Save Our Smith". Johnson says he hasn’t seen Tintina’s documentation, which claims to show that the ore deposit is surrounded by a layer of rock that would neutralize the acid and block it from contaminating groundwater. But Johnson says even if the chance of contamination is remote, it’s not worth risking the health of the River.
Johnson says, "If they can guarantee within a 100 percent absolute certainty that their particular operation will not, at all, pollute the Smith River, or the groundwater associated with it, and Sheep Creek, that may alleviate our concerns. But, again, this is a high risk endeavor for a place that is already very incredibly important."
Johnson says the best way to guarantee the mine doesn’t contaminate the river is just not to build it. Nancy Schlepp with Tintina responds that: the mine can be built and operated safely.
"We can totally protect this water resource when we do this right," Schlepp says. "When we do this right, the people that are enjoying the Smith River are not even going to know that we’re in operation."
Outside Tintina headquarters in White Sulphur Springs, the vans have returned from their tour and the people we spoke with, such as White Sulphur Springs resident James Stubblefield, seem convinced the mine is a good thing for the community.
"Well I really enjoyed it," Stubblefield says. "They explained it well, and they opened up a lot of questions that I had. So far it convinced me that it’s the right thing to do."
While Tintina Resources is working to win the hearts and minds of nearby residents, it’s the state Department of Environmental Quality that will decide whether to issue a permit to begin mining. The company hasn’t started the permit application process yet, and offers no details on when it will.
MEIC’s Derf Johnson is hoping to rally public opposition statewide, and convince DEQ to value the river over the mine.
"I think that Montanans really care about the Smith River and don’t want to see it harmed," Johnson says. "I’ve been really surprised at the amount of people coming out of the woodwork. And I think that it’s very likely that this project is not gonna move forward if Montanans have their say."
Both sides will be making their case to the public Saturday, in different venues. Tintina Resources will hold more public tours of the mine site. At about the same time, University of Montana students opposed to the mine are planning a "rally on the river," floating down the Clark Fork in Missoula to show their opposition.