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Copper Mining Threatens Montana's Smith River

A possible new headwaters copper mine may irreparably harm the canyon gem.

Copper Mining Threatens Montana's Smith River

The Smith River is a remote, pristine trout stream that ranks as one of the finest fisheries in Montana. The proposed Black Butte copper mine could potentially dewater or poison one of the Smith's most important tributaries. ( Jeff Erickson photo)

West-central Montana's Smith River mesmerizes floaters like a series of long-lost Ansel Adams landscape negatives, a sense of serendipity beckoning around every bend. The craggy spires, precipitous cliffs, abundant wildlife, archaeological treasures, and good camp companionship are more than enough.

But intrepid fly anglers enjoy seemingly endless iterations of perfect riffles, runs, and pools, the rubble-strewn banks sheltering feisty wild browns and rainbows, eager for Stimulators bounced off canyon walls. Hit the hatches, flows, and moon phases just right and you'll be belting gospel around the evening fire like Aretha Franklin.

Now, many Montana fly anglers and paddlers fear that a possible new headwaters copper mine may irreparably harm the Smith, one of the Treasure State's most beloved trout streams. If a decision is made by Canadian-based Tintina Resources to fully develop the Black Butte copper mine and it clears regulatory hurdles, it would be situated near Sheep Creek, a key spawning tributary for Smith River trout and a major source of its precious water.

Concerns about the mine focus on water quantity and quality. In addition to potential dewatering of Sheep Creek, critics cite a long history of acidic mine drainage and heavy metals destroying prime Big Sky Country trout water. Conversely, the involved mining company asserts the rich ore body can be exploited without severe environmental impacts, and many residents of nearby White Sulphur Springs regard the potential mine as an economic godsend.

Black Butte Mine

While it hasn't received the national attention that the gargantuan Bristol Bay, Alaska, open-pit mine proposal has garnered, the Black Butte scheme is illuminating the radar screens of an increasing number of Montana conservationists and policy makers.

The proposed mine would be located 15 miles from White Sulphur Springs in the Big Belt Mountains, 17 miles above Sheep Creek's confluence with the Smith at the Camp Baker put-in. The location is critical: Depending on the time of year, Sheep Creek can approximately double the Smith's flow; without this inflow, floating would often be impossible. If the Black Butte operation dewaters Sheep Creek, as opponents fear, the float window could further narrow and put additional thermal stress on trout. Additionally, any acid mine contamination would enter the river at the current start of the best fishing.

The Black Butte copper deposit was created by ancient sea vents, where the ocean floor was pulled apart by tectonic plates. As water circulated through the undersea cavities, it picked up minerals like copper that were deposited around the vents, a bit like an undersea Yellowstone.

The Black Butte property is centered on a private inholding in the Lewis and Clark National Forest; in 2010 mining leases were completed with ranchers on over 5,000 acres, with additional federal mining claims mixed in. Tintina estimates Black Butte may hold North America's third-highest grade copper deposit under development. Since core sampling began in 2010, Tintina has spent at least $18 million in exploration costs.

The stakes are large: A preliminary economic assessment estimated what has been christened the Johnny Lee deposit could produce an average of 47 million pounds of copper annually over a 14-year lifespan; at $3 per pound, the value would total nearly $2 billion. And Tintina believes there is silver and cobalt too, and even more copper below the upper Johnny Lee zone.

The geologist coordinating Tintina's on-site work–Jerry Zieg, Vice President for Exploration–grew up in White Sulphur Springs, did his masters thesis research in the area in 1980, and drilled the first core samples at the site three decades ago. His mother still lives in town. As someone with local ties, Zieg has won kudos in White Sulphur. As reported in a March 31, 2013 Helena Independent Record story, City Council President Heith Stidham said "Jerry being from here is a huge bonus–everybody trusts him and knows that he will put White Sulphur right up front."

But others are concerned about the unexpected events which often accompany mining—like an unanticipated spill or Tintina being taken over by a mining company headquartered in Moscow, Mexico City, or Beijing.

In a July 26, 2013 letter to members, Jim Jensen—executive director of the Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC)—asked, "Is this starting to sound familiar . . . a foreign company wants to mine in highly acidic rock and assures us that all will be fine. They hire a few local folks to give the project some 'cred' and the State can't wait to get the taxes . . . ."


In 2013, the company requested an amendment to its exploration permit to construct a mile-long tunnel (suitable for 40-ton trucks), facilitating a more detailed analysis of the Johnny Lee deposits. If the amendment is approved by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), Tintina will be allowed to extract up to 10,000 tons of rock for sampling. Along with the many existing core samples, this additional information will influence if and how Tintina proceeds in developing the mine, a decision that would trigger more environmental review.

The DEQ released a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) on the new exploration proposal in July 2013. The document determined Tintina would be able to mitigate adverse impacts and preliminarily recommended they be allowed to proceed, pending public review and final approval. Of concern to critics, up to 30 percent of the rock being extracted is potentially capable of generating destructive acidic runoff when brought to the surface and exposed to air and water.

The suspect material would be hauled atop a non-permeable barrier; runoff would be collected, treated if required, and stored in a 1.9-million gallon holding pond. If the operation moves to actual development, the amount of potentially acid-producing material processed would be much greater. In addition to the tailings holding areas, a mill would likely be constructed on site, encompassing a total of approximately 200 acres.

If things proceed as Tintina hopes, the company would receive a mine operating permit in 2015, with copper production beginning in 2016. According to Zieg, as of 2013 Tintina is about 40 percent down the road to developing the mine: "The work undertaken to date shows our confidence in the Johnny Lee deposit resource and our expectation that the Black Butte copper project will become an important mining operation in Montana's future."

Black Butte is likely to loom large in Montana political and policy discussions. In fact, Senate Bill (SB) 347–legislation introduced during the 2013 Montana legislative session–was specifically crafted to help mines like Black Butte address water challenges. The bill attempted to amend the "non-degradation" standards in the Montana Water Quality Act to ensure that DEQ assessments of water quality would be severed from water quantity, allowing mines to pump large amounts of groundwater from their operation without regard to potential impacts on stream flow recharge, water temperatures, contaminant concentrations, or downstream water rights, including those protecting fisheries.

In an April 22, 2013 op-ed piece in the Billings Gazette, Montana Trout Unlimited (TU) Executive Director Bruce Farling argued: "Massive pumping of groundwater for keeping underground mines dry can deplete connected surface flows in streams . . . if you think instream flow rights that FWP has on the Blackfoot, Big Hole, or Smith Rivers will protect these multi-million dollar recreational gems, think again. SB 347 allows mining to trump FWP's fishery-based water rights."

In an indication of the influence the mining industry still has in Montana, the legislation passed in both the Republican-led House and Senate, before being vetoed by Governor Steve Bullock, a Democrat. The Legislature's attempt to override Bullock's veto failed.

Copper Mining Threaten Montana's Smith River
Montana has a long, notorious history of allowing acidic runoff from hardrock mining to pollute and destroy prolific trout streams. (Jeff Erickson photo)

Perils of Mines Past

Black Butte proponents argue that modern U.S. mines are more environmentally benign than the devastating operations that ravaged Montana's watersheds in the late 19th century. Among other changes, there is an array of state and federal regulations that didn't exist a century ago—assuming they are written and implemented competently.

What hasn't changed, however, are the chemical reactions occurring when water and oxygen react with sulfide-bearing rock like pyrite (or fool's gold) disturbed by mining. Because tailings have been ground into small pieces, the amount of exposed, reactive surface area is dramatically increased over what would naturally occur.

Like all trout streams, the health of the Smith River watershed is partly dependent on its pH, or relative acidity or alkalinity. Limestone-based streams like the Smith, or Pennsylvania or Driftless Region spring creeks, are often very productive, in part because they are rich in calcium carbonates and tend to be alkaline.

Based on a logarithmic scale, a pH of 7.0 is neutral; the lower the pH level, the more acidic it is. Intensifying the problem are bacteria residing in low-pH water that further increase acidity. Sulfuric acid is a highly corrosive compound used in many industrial processes and products (like car batteries), and is toxic to many life forms, including trout and aquatic insects. When pH drops to 6.0, for example, stoneflies disappear; when it falls below 5.0, trout, mayflies, and caddisflies vanish; as it declines further, plankton and crustaceans die as the stream slips closer to sterility.

Compounding the problem, acidic water dissolves heavy metals like lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, nickel, iron, zinc, and copper, which get washed downstream and pass into the food chain, where they can bioaccumulate at destructively high levels.

The generation of sulfuric acid from mines can be difficult and expensive to stop, contain, or treat. Given exposure to water and oxygen, acidic runoff can continue until the sulfide minerals are depleted: Some Roman Empire-era mines still leak acid mine drainage after 2,000 years. Consequently, treatment of acid mine runoff may be required for a lengthy, indefinite period of time–if it is even economically feasible. Limestone helps neutralize acid, but this sometimes creates another impact: As acidity declines, metals held in solution precipitate out, sometimes smothering streambeds in garish orange hues.

The U.S. Forest Service estimates there are at least 20,000 mines producing acid mine drainage on its lands alone. In Montana, the litany of drainages severely damaged by mining is long, discouraging, and not necessarily ancient history. Perhaps the best known example has been contamination of the Clark Fork River from the historic Butte copper mines. Since mining began in the 1870s, heavy metals have washed downstream via Silver Bow Creek, devastating aquatic life. The stretch from the Warm Springs Ponds near Butte to the (recently removed) Milltown Dam above Missoula was designated one of the nation's largest federal Superfund sites and millions of dollars continue to be spent trying to restore dead riparian areas and improve the fishery.

Meanwhile, at the head of the drainage in Butte, the enormous, 1,780-foot deep Berkeley Pit continues to fill with highly acidic, metal-tainted water, draining labyrinthine abandoned mine shafts after the pumps were shut off in 1982.

Further down the Clark Fork watershed, a mine tailings pond in the Blackfoot River headwaters was breached during high water in 1975, sending tons of acidic waste miles downstream, severely damaging the stream's aquatic life for years. While the Blackfoot trout fishery has recovered impressively in recent decades, the waste plume continues to migrate downstream.

In 1979, the Pegasus Gold Corporation built massive, open pit cyanide heap leach mines at Zortman and Landusky, in the Little Rocky Mountains in north-central Montana. The gold mines were allowed to continuously expand in spite of repeated cyanide spills, acid mine drainage, and other violations of the company's operating permits.

In the mid-1990s the State of Montana and federal Environmental Protection Agency filed suits against Pegasus for its infractions, yet the Montana DEQ and federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approved yet another expansion plan for the company in 1996. After Pegasus filed for bankruptcy in 1998, the DEQ and BLM were stuck with ongoing, multi-million dollar reclamation and water treatment costs, as the cleanup bonds posted by the company were grossly insufficient. As Jensen summarized, "Mining companies have broken many promises in Montana's history."

The Zortman-Landusky debacle illustrates not only the frequent inadequacy of cleanup funding, but a substantial gap between benign pre-mine forecasts and the severity of what often occurs. A comprehensive study found that 76 percent of the U.S. hardrock operations analyzed exceeded surface or groundwater quality standards, even though "nearly all the mines with acid drainage either underestimated or ignored the potential . . . in their EIS's" ("Comparison of Predicted and Actual Water Quality at Hardrock Mines." by James Kuipers, Ann Maest, et al., 2006). What's more, mitigation measures designed to prevent water quality violations ultimately failed at 64 percent of the operations.

Tragedy on Belt Creek

For an especially catastrophic cautionary tale, one need only look to the Smith's comely little sister–Belt Creek–the next drainage to the east in the Little Belt Mountains. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Belt Creek ranked among Montana's premier trout streams. The creek teemed with native westslope cutthroat trout, mountain whitefish, and introduced brown, rainbow, and brook trout.

Beginning in 1914, anglers could board a "Fisherman's Special" train out of Great Falls on Sunday morning, snake along the precipitous walls of the "Sluice Boxes" limestone canyon, and signal to the conductor where they wanted to try their luck. In the evening they would scramble up to the tracks, flag down the return train, and arrive back in town in time for a late fish dinner.

According to a regional history by Sharon Bodkins (A Light at the End of the Canyon, 1989), a local resident remembers: Excitement ran high when the Fish Train came to town . . . . The train usually had two or three engines pulling 20 coaches loaded with campers and people from Great Falls. Belt Creek at that time was a prime trout stream, one of the finest in the country.

Trout paradise didn't last on Belt Creek once silver and coal mines proliferated in the watershed. The impact of heavy metals and acidic runoff took a severe toll, effects that continued long after most of the mines shut down. Following World War I, the creek sometimes ran a hallucinogenic array of colors, with significant fish kills. High production years in the hard rock mines during the 1920s obliterated the fishery, which was already under duress. According to local historians Ethel Kennedy and Eva Stober (Belt Valley History: 1877-1979, 1979), "Fishing was good in Belt Creek until the early 20s when the tailings from the mines and mills in Silver Dyke, Neihart, and Hughesville made the stream uninhabitable to fish… The water was thick with slum and the creek bed was covered with yellow mud.

On the night of July 10, 1925, the situation came to a tragic climax: The Silver Dyke's tailings impoundment dam failed following an earthquake, sending a 50-foot-high wall of water and sediment cascading down Carpenter Creek, a tributary. Two children were swept to their deaths, and tons of metal-rich tailings pulsed down Belt Creek to the Missouri River. The November 3, 1936 issue of the Belt Valley Times stated that Belt Creek "was for many years the fishermen's paradise. However, the tailings from the mine concentrators have so polluted the waters that the fishing tribe is no longer evident."

By the end of World War II, Belt Creek's reputation as one of Montana's premier fisheries was a distant memory. Even today, well down the long road toward redemption, Belt Creek is sometimes not even mentioned in Montana trout-fishing guidebooks. While millions of dollars of reclamation work has been completed by state and federal agencies–and fishing has improved significantly–some Belt Creek tributaries continued to belch contamination.

Acute pollution events still occur as stormwater washes over tailings and through abandoned mine shafts. An especially serious episode occurred in 2000, when a collapsed adit blew out at Neihart's Upper Rebellion Mine, probably from internal water pressure building over time. The freshly opened shaft released an acidic torrent of heavy metals that rushed down Snow and Carpenter Creeks into Belt, which ran a disgusting rusty color. Even three weeks afterward, water quality samples taken in Belt Creek still showed unusually high levels of zinc, lead, copper, and aluminum.

None of this means the Smith River will inevitably be eviscerated like Belt Creek if Black Butte proceeds. But it is important to remember what was lost in many Montana streams, and how difficult and expensive it has been to bring them even partway back to their previous glory. An early 20th century editorial from the Belt Valley Times made the following observation on the deteriorated state of Belt Creek, with advice to those who were already fighting to protect it: "We learn from those who have been trying their luck on Belt River (Creek) recently, that the fishing is very poor, and they state as a reason that the slum from the concentrator at Neihart is driving the fish out of the river. This is bad news for the fishermen . . . as this place has been famous in the past for its fine fishing, but we believe the residents of the county will take the right view of the matter, as the concentrator is of more benefit to the county at large than the fish.

"Besides, there are plenty of fine trout streams left, and the angler need have no fear but that he can obtain plenty of sport as long as there are no saw mills, concentrators, or stamp mills on such streams . . . whose waters are teaming [sic] with trout, and we can well spare one.

This seems like a perspective from a long-lost era. But skeptics might ask whether William Faulkner was on to something with his famous lines in Requiem for a Nun: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Jeff Erickson owns the consulting business Headwater Policy/Planning Partnership in Helena, Montana. His last article for Fly Fisherman was "Iowa's Spring Creek Paradise" in the Oct-Nov-Dec 2012 issue.

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