Smith River

A group floats the Smith River in 2016.

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Montana environmental officials moved closer to approving a controversial copper mine in the Smith River drainage Friday, releasing a final report that says the mine could be built without causing significant harm to the famous stream.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality released Friday its final environmental review of the Black Butte Copper Project, an underground mine proposed about 15 miles north of White Sulphur Springs. The document found the mine wouldn’t have significant environmental impacts if it was built with some changes recommended by DEQ.

The document sets the stage for final approval of the mine. DEQ will issue a final record of decision based on that document. DEQ said in a news release that the decision can’t be issued any sooner than 15 days from Friday.

The state also announced that the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation gave preliminary approval to two water permit applications and six water right change applications connected to the project. John Grassy, a spokesman for DNRC, said that decision now opens a 60-day period where people can file objections to the approval of those permits.

The decisions from DNRC and DEQ deliver wins to Tintina Montana, the subsidiary of Sandfire America that wants to develop the underground copper mine near Sheep Creek, a major tributary to the Smith.

“We are delighted to have achieved these key milestones, which represent the culmination of a robust and lengthy permitting process,” said Rob Scargill, Sandfire’s CEO and vice president of project development. “Together with our team of Montana-based environmental consultants, we have demonstrated that a modern underground mine can be developed and operated while fully protecting the environment and water resources.”

It’s a blow to conservation groups that have fought against the mine at every turn. Several of those groups treated Friday’s announcement as a de facto approval of the project, criticizing the decision in emailed statements and promising to continue fighting the mine.

They’ve argued over the years that the mine threatens both water quality and quantity in the Smith, a famous fly-fishing and floating destination. They argue that DEQ’s efforts to analyze the potential impacts of the mine have fallen short.

David Brooks, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited, said in a news release Friday that the decision “discounted the concerns of thousands of Montanans who submitted comments asking the agency to protect the Smith River for future generations.”

“Today we learned that despite an EIS that was shown to be woefully inadequate, the DEQ gave Sandfire the go-ahead to build its controversial mine, with only minor changes that do little to curtail the substantial risks it poses to water quality, water quantity, and the Smith River’s nationally renowned wild trout fishery,” Brooks said.

Scott Bosse, Northern Rockies director for American Rivers, said the groups that have opposed the mine “fully intend to challenge this decision.”

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Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2638.

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