Black Butte Copper Mine

On Aug. 15, 2020, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality issued a mining permit for the first phase of the Black Butte Copper Project.

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A Montana District Court judge will hear oral arguments Friday in Meagher County in a lawsuit brought by several conservation groups asking that the state’s approval of a copper mine north of White Sulphur Springs be canceled.

Judge Katherine Bidegary, who serves in Richland County District Court, will hear arguments from groups including Montana Trout Unlimited, the Montana Environmental Information Center and Earth Works against the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and Sandfire Resources America.

Judge Randal Spaulding who typically covers Meagher County recused himself in the case, according to the Meagher County Clerk of District Court’s office.

Sandfire Resources America, formerly Tintina, has spent more than five years in the permitting process with DEQ. In February, the state issued a final environmental impact statement for the mine and surface construction for the project’s first phase began last year. The state found that the mine proposal is not predicted to harm the Smith River and that the company had met the necessary steps to mine under Montana law. The mine is located near Sheep Creek, a Smith tributary.

The groups who filed the lawsuit last June allege that state officials did not adequately analyze the potential environmental consequences of the Black Butte Copper Project and contend that it could cause pollution and dewatering to Sheep Creek and downstream to the Smith. The Smith is Montana’s only permitted river with an annual lottery to award permits.

Specifically, the groups allege that the state inadequately assessed the potential risk of above-ground tailings impoundments that if breached, could cause pollution including acid mine drainage. The groups further allege that DEQ did not adequately assess potential impacts to stream flows and did not fully consider alternatives to mitigate potential issues.

Sandfire expects Black Butte to produce about $2 billion in revenue over a 10- to 15-year mine life.

Oral arguments are scheduled for noon on Friday in the Meagher County Courthouse.

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Tom Kuglin is the deputy editor for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. His coverage focuses on outdoors, recreation and natural resources.

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