Could The Smith River Become The Next Standing Rock?

Meagher County, Montana — The Smith River, a bastion of wildlife and a tourist hotspot in Montana, is finding itself under a potential environmental threat. The source of that threat? A proposed copper mine that “sits directly adjacent to and underneath Sheep Creek, a major tributary to the Smith,” Derf Johnson, the Clean Water Program Director of the Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC) —  a non-profit environmental advocate and watchdog group — told American News X.

The Smith River, renowned for its incredible scenery and trout fishing, is increasingly popular in Montana. The river began attracting so many tourists, or “floaters,” that the State Park began to issue permits by lottery. In 2015 alone, more than 8,000 people applied for just 1,175 permits.

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According to an analysis, “recreational fishing on the Smith River generates more than $10 million a year for outfitters and surrounding communities like White Sulphur Springs.” So the economic benefits to the communities surrounding the Smith are great.

However, these economic benefits from tourists looking for some of the finest trout fishing in the United States could slip away if Tintina, the Australian and Canadian mining company seeking to open the proposed Black Butte Copper Mine Project, sees its plans come to fruition.

The proposed mine, while of great benefit to Tintina, could pollute the Smith via acid mine drainage. This wouldn’t be the first occurrence of this type of pollution to affect a community from a copper mine, either.

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According to a groundbreaking report from The Guardian, acid pollution associated with copper mines can have a drastic effect on surrounding communities, especially in nations with little regulation:

“The villagers say acid spills and contaminated water in their streams, rivers, and boreholes are getting worse. ‘The frequency and severity of spills is higher and more consistent. Before we could not smell [the pollution] but now we can. The ground is contaminated, our crop yield has dropped, the maize crop is about half what it was,’ said Leo Moulenga of Shimulala. ‘When there is a spill, the air is very acidic. Last week they spilled a lot. It was awful. In the future, we don’t think people will be able to live here. It is becoming uninhabitable. The pollution has been incremental. Now it’s getting worse.'”

One would hope the United States has plenty of regulations in place to protect people from atrocities that we have seen happen around the world, most notably in the African village of Shimulala. However, with Trump’s rollback of Obama-era environmental protections, it remains to be seen if the United States still has the kind of regulatory authority required to keep citizens in Meagher County safe from any potential harm this mine represents.

“The problem with sulfide ore bodies is that they cause acid mine drainage (AMD). Once AMD starts, it is impossible to stop, and it will last into perpetuity,” Johnson intimated to American News X. “This means that, should AMD be a problem at Black Butte, the water will have to be treated forever, which will likely eventually require taxpayer expense.”

American News X reached out to Tintina Vice President of Communications Nancy Higgins Schlepp in regards to possible safety measures the company would be taking to reassure Montanans. Our request for comment received no response.

While the potential environmental impact to the area could be severe, one would look to economic reasons to justify the mine in the face of so much potential damage. Surely, with the potential and astronomic cost of treating the Smith River, the economic benefits would be just too much to ignore. And they would be. For Tintina.

According to Tintina’s website, the proposed mine will create 240 full-time jobs and 50 hired full-time contractors after construction is complete. Construction is expected to take 24 months and will include hiring approximately 200 people.

As we pointed out earlier, the Smith River, just from its beauty and its incredible trout, will drum up about $10 million USD a year for the surrounding area. All that economic stimulus without the threat of poisoning the river.

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Tintina is probably not going to pay 290 people a total of $10 million dollars a year. If the mine has a negative effect on tourism, and it likely will, then the surrounding areas will begin to suffer economically even if all 290 full-time workers are Montanans and paid exceedingly well.

But it seems that not all Montanans are being suckered by the rhetoric of “job creation.”

Montana Senator John Tester had this to say in regards to the mine last year:

“The Smith already creates jobs and stimulates the economy all by itself. Folks come from all over the world and pay good money to float it. They even enter into a lottery just for the chance to catch a trout in its pristine waters. If we don’t protect this Montana gem, those jobs will be gone, the economy of the surrounding communities would change forever, and the Smith would never be the same.”

Tester isn’t the only one speaking out against the proposed mine.

At a public panel, a local Montanan stood up and was counted as he proceeded to tear Tintina apart. Security was quick to silence the man, but not before his epic rant was heard. Discretion is advised as the gentleman’s language is not meant for the faint of heart:

With the passion this as-of-yet unnamed hero is expressing, it may very well be that, in the coming months, we see another protest like the one that rocked Cannonball, North Dakota as Americans flocked to stand in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.


Featured image via Flickr.  All thanks to our good friend and photographer Charley Willett.

About James Stahl 285 Articles
James is a liberal progressive that writes from a left-leaning point of view. If you want to discuss any of his articles give him a follow on Twitter at @JamesStahlANX to join the conversation.