WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS — A Montana judge has ruled that the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) unlawfully approved the construction of the Black Butte Copper Mine near White Sulphur Springs.
In June 2020, Montana Trout Unlimited, Montana Environmental Information Center, Earthworks, and American Rivers challenged the mine’s operating permit in court, alleging that DEQ failed to conduct a thorough environmental analysis and that the agency ignored over 12,000 public comments opposing the mine.
District Court Judge Katherine Bidegaray granted summary judgment on April 8, 2022, for the plaintiffs saying DEQ violated the Metal Mine Reclamation Act (MMRA) and the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) in failing to consider alternative methods proposed by DEQ’s own consultants.
“The court’s decision is good news for the Smith River and the thousands of Montana families, like mine, that love this river,” said Bonnie Gestring, Northwest Program Director for Earthworks. “Too many mines in Montana have unnecessarily polluted our rivers and streams. We can’t let that happen to the headwaters of the Smith River. The court’s ruling echoes our grave concerns about the potential harm from the proposed mine.”
DEQ Director Chris Dorrington told MTN in a statement the agency plans to appeal the ruling from Bidegaray.
"We care about protecting water quality, the iconic Smith River and upholding the laws of Montana—that’s why our team of experts thoroughly analyzed the permit application and required stringent measures to protect Montana. Before, and after, becoming director I have been involved in this mine permitting process and know it is one of the most protective permits DEQ has ever issued. DEQ plans to appeal Judge Bidegaray’s decision on this sound and defensible permit," wrote Dorrington.
The Black Butte Copper Project is being operated by Sandfire Resources America, formerly known as Tintina Resources. According to the state’s environmental impact statement (EIS), the mine would impact just over 300 acres of land with little to no direct impact on hunting, fishing or other recreation opportunities in the area.
Sandfire America says the company is reviewing the legal decision and will then make a plan on going forward after the information has been evaluated.
Sandfire America’s Senior Vice President Jerry Zieg shared, “We have gone above and beyond industry standards to satisfy Montana’s permitting requirements, which provide one of the toughest regulatory processes worldwide. The Montana DEQ has done comprehensive, diligent work in the environmental and technical analyses and the project continues to be cited as one of the most comprehensive and safest mining plans Montana has ever seen. This is an ongoing process and we continue to have confidence in our project.”
Opponents of the mine have expressed concerns over the mine's proximity to the Smith River, one of Montana's premier fishing destinations. The Smith River is the only permitted recreational river in Montana.
Judge Bidegaray has given the state and the plaintiffs 45 days to file briefs for what they believe is an appropriate remedy to the situation. It is unclear at this time how the ruling will impact current and future work at the Black Butte Copper Mine site.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with comments from DEQ, Sandfire America and Earthworks.