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A national environmental group has listed the Smith River as one of the most endangered streams in the nation for the second year in a row because of a proposed copper mine along one of its tributaries.

The group American Rivers has ranked the Smith as the fourth most endangered river in the country in its latest “America’s Most Endangered Rivers” report, a nationwide list that the group compiles annually. The Smith River, prized by many recreational floaters and anglers, also made the list in 2015.

The report says that the Black Butte Copper Project, a mine proposed by the Canadian company Tintina Resources, poses several dangers to the stream, including the leaching of heavy metals and dewatering of a main tributary. It calls for Montana’s Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock to “send a clear signal” to Tintina that its proposal must meet “standards never before required of mines in Montana.”

“Developing a copper mine of this size adjacent to and underneath one of the Smith River’s most important headwaters tributaries poses an unacceptably high risk,” said Derf Johnson of the Montana Environmental Information Center in a press release about the report.

The company maintains that the mine will be safe and won’t harm the Smith River, and that it welcomes being held to high standards.

“We expect to be held to a very high standard and hold ourselves to a very high standard,” said company spokeswoman Nancy Schlepp.

Tintina wants to build an underground mine about 17 miles north of White Sulphur Springs near Sheep Creek, a tributary to the Smith River where many of the stream’s trout spawn each year. It would be about 19 miles from the confluence of Sheep Creek with the Smith.

The deposit the company’s after is called the Johnny Lee Deposit, and it is believed to hold high grade copper. The company’s website touts it as the “highest grade copper deposit currently under permit in the world.”

In December, Tintina filed an application for a mine operating permit with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. In early March, DEQ responded with a deficiency review that outlined dozens of areas where they wanted more information from the company. Opponents of the project — including American Rivers — hired independent consultants to review the application as well, and those consultants pointed out areas of the application they thought were deficient as well, in some cases beyond what DEQ had identified.

The missing data includes information on fisheries, groundwater and surface water connection and long-term tailings effects.

“There’s a lot of information that’s still missing from Tintina’s permit application,” said Scott Bosse, the northern Rockies director for American Rivers. “And until Montanans get a chance to see that information, we think the state should put the brakes on issuing any permits.”

Tintina is working on a response to that review, and Schlepp has said that they will respond to the independent consultants’ reports as well.

The streams American Rivers ranked more endangered than the Smith are the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River basin in the southeast, the San Joaquin River in central California and the Susquehanna River in Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Among the concerns on the Smith outlined in the endangered rivers report are worries about acid mine drainage, the dewatering of Sheep Creek and nitrate levels in wastewater.

Schlepp said that “every drop of water” from the mine will be treated using a reverse osmosis system, and that they expect that to take care of worries about nitrate levels or heavy metals leaching. She added that since tailings will be either underground or in a cemented facility, acid drainage won’t occur, and that the project will be in a closed basin and won’t dewater Sheep Creek.

Another worry the report brings forth is that the company has been telling investors that there is potential for as many as 50 years of mining there. The report notes that their permit application “failed to divulge the full scope” of mining activity that could take place over that time.

The company has found another deposit there, but Jerry Zieg, Tintina’s vice president, said it was small and wouldn’t mean 50 years of mining. He said talk of mining for the next 50 years is “highly speculative,” and that the company’s higher-ups merely think the region is a good place to look for more mineral deposits.

“Until we actually do the drilling and look for those resources, it’s just speculation,” Zieg said.

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

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