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LIVINGSTON — A mixed crowd spent Monday night in the high school gym here to weigh in on a controversial copper mine proposed along a tributary to a famous Montana stream.

The dozen who spoke at Park County High School were evenly split on the Black Butte Copper Project, the mine Tintina Montana wants to build about 15 miles north of White Sulphur Springs near Sheep Creek, a tributary of the Smith River.

Half the speakers raised concerns about acid mine drainage, water quality and any potential harm to the Smith.

“We think the risk is not worth the reward for one of the most precious streams in Montana,” said Mike Fiebig, of the conservation group American Rivers.

The other half talked about the potential economic benefits, and they said they thought the company behind the project, Tintina Montana, could mine safely and protect the environment.

“I don’t think there’s any possible way that the safety and quality of the Smith River or Sheep Creek will ever be jeopardized,” said Rick Ellison, who grew up near the Smith.

The meeting was the second of three the Department of Environmental Quality is holding on the project. The meetings follow the agency’s release of a draft environmental analysis in March that found the underground copper mine wouldn’t significantly harm the environment. A final version is expected this fall, and a decision on whether the company could mine would come next.

A 60-day public comment period on the draft analysis is open until May 10, and Monday’s meeting was one of three the agency is holding around the state to gather public comment. Two webinars are also scheduled for this week.

A coalition of conservation groups believe the comment period is too short to digest the entire EIS, and they asked for an extension. But an extension wasn’t granted.

Kristi Ponozzo, DEQ public policy director, said the agency started with the maximum length it could order — the legally required 30 days and an additional 30 days — and that it asked Tintina if it could be extended further. Tintina objected to that.

Jerry Zieg, a vice president at Tintina, said 60 days was already twice what was legally required and should be enough time, and that the company didn’t want to keep granting extensions.

“When do you stop? We’ve already doubled the length of the comment period,” Zieg said.

The underground copper mine proposed by Tintina Montana, a subsidiary of Sandfire America, has been controversial from the beginning because of its connection to the Smith River, even though the mine would be about 19 miles from the stream. The Smith is beloved by fly anglers and rafters alike for its scenic values and the remote experience it offers as it winds through a canyon on its way to the Missouri.

Conservation groups like American Rivers and Trout Unlimited have kept close watch on the project over the years, and are still doing so. The groups worry the mine could harm Sheep Creek and in turn the Smith. The company maintains that its mine will use state-of-the-art technology, including a cemented tailings impoundment to prevent acid drainage, and won’t harm the streams.

David Brooks, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited, said some of the technology proposed for the mine isn’t fully vetted, and that DEQ seemed to be taking Tintina at its word that it would work.

“Is DEQ really ready to make a guinea pig out of one of Montana’s most prized watersheds?” Brooks said. “Montana TU is not.”

A few people who worked in the mining industry said they thought the analysis was thorough, and that the company could mine safely. A few people praised the jobs the mine could create, saying it might help keep people in White Sulphur.

And some see it as a tax boon.

“They’ve really done their homework, and it’s going to be an economic boon to the county,” said David Voldseth, a rancher in the area. “And we as landowners could definitely use some property tax relief.”

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

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