Friday the 13th, an infamously unfortunate day, lived up to its name this year when the Montana Department of Environmental Quality finalized and released an environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Black Butte copper mine in the headwaters of the Smith River in Montana.
Thus, the extremely risky Smith Mine is one step closer to reality. The final EIS means that a mining permit is not far behind, despite widespread public opposition from a strong majority of Montanans and well-documented concerns expressed by scientists, landowners, and a coalition of conservation organizations. The DEQ ignores more than 12,000 public comments opposing the mine and a wealth of evidence presented to the agency showing a high risk of long-term pollution and chronic dewatering of the Smith River and its most important tributary, Sheep Creek.
“We are disappointed but not terribly surprised by DEQ’s decision,” said David Brooks, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited. “We are working with our legal team on several litigation options that we will pursue regarding the many ways this EIS fails to protect the Smith River.”
The draft EIS for the mine was released in spring 2018. It lacked critical information, used flawed data, relied on weak methodologies, and failed to acknowledge numerous risks to water quality and quantity that the mine poses to the Smith River watershed, which already suffers from insufficient flows in most years. Trout Unlimited hired independent experts to review, evaluate and comment on the draft EIS’s analysis of mine engineering, hydrology, geochemistry, and aquatic biology. Based on the experts’ findings and our review of the draft EIS, we strongly urged the DEQ to select the “No Action” alternative, meaning that the department would deny Sandfire a mine permit. After initial review of the Final EIS, the DEQ has ignored our comments and concerns.
“The DEQ’s decision to permit Sandfire’s mine is a direct threat to my business,” said Brandon Boedecker of PRO Outfitters. “My outfitting operation is dependent on clean water and wild country, and the DEQ apparently thinks that a copper mine is more important than the Smith River and the folks that depend on it. They’re wrong.”
The release of the final EIS has kickstarted the next process of our efforts to protect the Smith River. TU will move our efforts from the administrative process, in which we have fully participated at every stage over the past six years, to the legal arena. Montana’s State Constitution gives Montanan’s the right to a clean and healthful environment, and we believe this mine flies in the face of that right. The fight continues, and Trout Unlimited will take the point position in our battle to protect our Smith River.