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Fight Continues to Protect MT's Smith River from Mine

The three-month spring fishing season on the Smith River generates an estimated $10 million for the outdoor recreation economy. (Bitterroot/Flickr)
The three-month spring fishing season on the Smith River generates an estimated $10 million for the outdoor recreation economy. (Bitterroot/Flickr)
June 5, 2020

HELENA, Mont. - Conservation groups battle on to protect one of Montana's most popular rivers from a proposed mine.

Yesterday, groups filed a lawsuit challenging state permits for the Black Butte Copper Mine, which would be located at the headwaters of the Smith River. Scott Bosse, Northern Rockies director for the group American Rivers, says it's unfortunate that they have to file a lawsuit in this case.

"But when a foreign mining company that's located 10,000 miles away wants to build a copper mine at the headwaters of our state's most cherished river," says Bosse, "and that mine would result in de-watered streams and permanent toxic pollution, we really don't have any other choice."

The Australian company Sandfire Resources plans to build the mine in the Sheep Creek Basin, about 19 miles from the Smith River and on one of its tributaries. Opponents are concerned it will threaten water quality and quantity for the Smith.

They also point out that Sandfire is using an experimental storage process for toxic waste, and say the Montana Department of Environmental Quality did not consider all the alternatives for this project.

Joe Sowerby owns the outfitting company Montana Flyfishing Connection, and has worked for 30 years on the river. He says there's no other river like the Smith.

"It needs to have people sticking up for that river," says Sowerby. "We need to make sure that it needs to stay as it is now. We can't let it get degraded."

Bosse notes the Smith River is important culturally and economically. He says the three-month spring fishing season on the river generates $10 million for the outdoor recreation economy.

"And that money is created in rural communities, like White Sulphur Springs," says Bosse. "So, we have a great thing going with the Smith River right now, and we don't want to mess it up with a new mine in its headwaters."

Disclosure: American Rivers contributes to our fund for reporting on Climate Change/Air Quality, Environment, Salmon Recovery, Water. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - MT