Smith River

The Smith River is seen in this June 2014 file photo.

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Central Montana’s pristine Smith River has been named among the most-endangered rivers in the nation by environmental advocacy group American Rivers, which cites the threat posed by a Tintina Resources copper mine proposed near one of the river’s tributaries.

American Rivers has ranked the Smith fourth on its annual listing, released today, which is intended to call attention to waterways subject to upcoming decisions about their fates.

Tintina, based in Vancouver, British Columbia, has proposed an underground copper mine and associated tailings facility on private land adjacent to Sheep Creek, at a site approximately 20 miles north of White Sulphur Springs.

In a preliminary economic assessment, the company estimates the Black Butte Copper Project would last 11 years and employ about 175 people, about the same number of workers as are employed by Meagher County’s agricultural sector.

American Rivers and other opponents are concerned that mining activity could result in acid mine drainage, toxic metal leaching and nitrate contamination.

“The State of Montana should not permit the copper mine unless it can be designed in a way that eliminates any risk to the river’s water quality and habitat,” American Rivers wrote in a report accompanying this week’s river listings announcement.

The Smith, which goes through the Little Belt and Big Belt mountains before meeting the Missouri River south of Great Falls, is widely regarded as one of the most scenic rivers in Montana. It is so popular for float trips that it is the only river in the state requiring a float permit for recreational use.

In 2015, according to American Rivers, 8,096 people applied for 1,175 float permits, and the group also cites a statistic estimating that recreational fishing and floating generate $4.5 million per year in revenue for outfitters and surrounding communities.

American Rivers, based in Washington, D.C., is a nonprofit advocacy group focused on river conservation and restoration.

Other rivers on the group’s 2015 most-endangered list include the Grand Canyon stretch of the Colorado River, the Columbia River in Oregon and Washington, Tennessee’s Holston River, and the Rogue River in southern Oregon.

More information about the project and its opposition are available at tintinaresources.com/black-butte-copper and saveoursmith.com.

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Eric Dietrich can be reached at 406-582-2628 or edietrich@dailychronicle.com. He is on Twitter at @eidietrich.

Eric Dietrich can be reached at 406-582-2628 or edietrich@dailychronicle.com. He is on Twitter at @eidietrich.

Eric Dietrich covers city government and health for the Chronicle.

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