Smith River

The Smith River winds through 59 miles of craggy canyons in the Little Belt Mountains east of Helena.

When they heard about 2,500 public comments were submitted on a draft analysis of a proposed copper mine near a tributary of a famous Montana stream, both opponents and supporters were surprised.

The number seemed too low.

Turns out, their instincts were right. A state email filter directed thousands of comments on the Black Butte Copper Project to a spam folder. State officials have retrieved the comments since, and the real total was about 12,500 — much closer to what conservationists and mine developers expected, given the attention the project north of White Sulphur Springs has generated over the years.

Karen Ogden, a spokeswoman for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, said the filter identified emails sent through a third-party as spam. As a result, state officials initially didn’t see thousands of comments submitted through the websites of two conservation groups concerned about the potential impacts of the mine.

She said the state reached out to the groups affected and that staffers are now reviewing all the comments as they work toward a final environmental impact statement for the project.

“They weren’t lost,” Ogden said. “We just ran into an email filter issue.”

The problem had not happened before, Ogden said, and she couldn’t say why it happened this time. She said the comment review process was not delayed.

The snafu just so happened to occur during one of the most high profile and contentious permitting processes DEQ has dealt with in recent years. Conservation groups have been fighting against plans to mine for copper near the Smith River, a stream treasured by anglers and floaters alike. The mine is proposed near Sheep Creek, a major tributary of the Smith. The mine’s opponents worry the project could lead to acid mine drainage and potential harm to the creek and ultimately the river.

Tintina Montana is the company behind the mine. It’s a subsidiary of Sandfire America. Company officials believe they’ve included enough environmental safeguards in their plans to protect the Smith.

In March, DEQ released a draft environmental impact statement that found the underground copper mine wouldn’t significantly harm the environment, bringing a years-long process nearer to the end. That opened a 60-day public comment period that included a few public hearings and two webinars.

Comments sent through the websites of Earthworks and American Rivers were flagged as spam. Scott Bosse, the Northern Rockies director for American Rivers, said his group generated more than 4,600 comments through “action alerts” sent to members. The alerts included a link that allowed people to write a comment that would then be sent to DEQ through a third-party.

The reason they did it that way, Bosse said, was to simplify things for their members — a one-stop shop instead of directing people to the DEQ website.

“The more steps people have to take, the less likely they are to weigh in,” Bosse said.

Bosse said he doesn’t think the mistake was intentional, and that DEQ apologized. But he is worried it shrinks further the amount of time the state has to look closely at the comments and respond fully to the issues raised — DEQ has said before that they hope to have a final analysis done this fall.

His organization and others hired consultants to dig through the draft environmental impact statement to find places where they think the agency ignored or glossed over key issues. Among their concerns are the process the company will use to get rid of mine tailings — cementing and burying them — and the potential for the company to expand after it’s permitted. Bosse said they remain convinced the mine “is not the environmentally benign project that Sandfire and the state are making this out to be.”

Colin Cooney, of Trout Unlimited, said his group didn’t use a similar system for comments on the draft report, but that they remain worried about the impact the mine could have on Sheep Creek and the Smith. He added that the volume of comments shows they aren’t the only ones worried.

“Is it a popularity contest? No,” Cooney said. “But it shows there are a lot of people watching this process and a lot of people watching this process that share our concerns.”

Jerry Zieg, a vice president of Tintina, was surprised by the low number of comments at first. Once he heard about the spam filter, it made more sense. But he doesn’t think there will be anything new in the remaining comments, and they remain confident their mine won’t harm the environment.

“I’ve seen nothing in the comments that we didn’t feel was adequately addressed in the application and in the draft EIS,” Zieg said.

Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

Michael Wright covers the environment and wildlife issues for the Chronicle.

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