WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, Montana ― In the late 1800s, a homesteader named Johnny Lee settled in a remote gulch along Sheep Creek, a tributary of the Smith River that zigzags west through the rolling Little Belt Mountains of central Montana. For two decades, Lee toiled on a nearby hillside where a small amount of copper had been found, hoping to uncover a large underground deposit of the valuable ore.
Lee didn’t realize he was working along a fault; the copper there had been carried away from a rich vein a third of a mile to the east.
“It was a complete exercise in futility,” said longtime miner Jerry Zieg, 63, as he looked out over Lee’s old stomping grounds on a brisk, sunny afternoon in April, the landscape still blanketed in the long winter’s snow.
In 1985, Zieg discovered what the late homesteader never could. Then a geologist for Cominco American Inc., a subsidiary of a Canadian mining company, Zieg helped drill an exploratory hole next to the homesteader’s old cabin and hit not one but two layers of high-grade copper-sulfide. Subsequent surveys showed that Lee had unknowingly lived directly above a billion pounds of copper.
Zieg, now senior vice president of Sandfire Resources America, has led a decadelong effort to develop an underground mine at the site. The Vancouver, Canada-based firm, formerly Tintina Resources, is in the final stages of permitting to extract some 15 million tons of copper-rich rock from the “Johnny Lee” deposit. The proposed $250 million Black Butte Copper Project would be the first new copper mine to open in Montana in more than 40 years.
Sandfire says it will not only give the quaint ranching town of White Sulphur Springs a much-needed economic boost, but it would set a new standard of environmental stewardship for an industry with a long history of pollution. The project comes at a time of increasing global demand for copper to electrify developing countries and to outfit electric vehicles, solar panels, wind farms and other green technologies.
But many are unconvinced that the company will live up to its promises. Sandfire faces fierce opposition from conservation and outdoor sporting groups, who worry about the fate of the Smith River, located 20 miles downstream from the project site. The Smith is one of Montana’s most treasured waterways, a renowned trout fishery that snakes through towering limestone canyons before emptying into the Missouri River.
In Big Sky country, you don’t have to go far to find hard-rock mining’s toxic legacy.
In the late 1800s, Butte was ruled by a trio of rival industrialists known as the “Copper Kings.” Now it is home to the infamous Berkeley Pit (see top video), a shuttered, gaping open-pit copper mine now full of water poisoned with sulfuric acid and heavy metals. In 2016, a flock of 3,000 migrating snow geese landed on the lake and promptly died.
A 120-mile stretch of the Clark Fork River still holds toxic mine tailings that washed downstream during a 1908 flood. And in Anaconda, some 300-square miles of soil and groundwater remain polluted with heavy metals from an old copper smelter. Together, the sites make up the largest complex of polluted Superfund sites in the country.
Karen Knudsen, executive director of the Clark Fork Coalition, a Missoula-based nonprofit working to restore the immense watershed, fears the copper industry is on the verge of a resurgence. Idaho-based Hecla Mining Company is also pressing ahead with a decadeslong effort to develop two large copper and silver mines under the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness, a range of rugged peaks in the northwest corner of the state.
“It is certainly sounding the alarm bells,” Knudsen said.
State regulators look poised to greenlight Sandfire’s mine. In March, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality released a draft environmental impact statement that found the mine would not harm water quality, fish populations or recreation on the Smith, and have only limited impacts to Sheep Creek and other nearby waterways.
Sandfire plans to access the deposit via a milelong angled tunnel. The mine would be completely underground ― so no unsightly open pit ― and the ore would be processed at a mill the company plans to build on-site. Sandfire hopes to break ground as early as this summer, with mining expected to start in mid-2021. At full production, Black Butte would produce approximately 440 tons of copper concentrate per day and employ around 240 people. The mine would operate for up to 14 years.
Zieg’s personal story is deeply intertwined with the project’s history. He grew up on a ranch just downstream from the confluence of Sheep Creek and the Smith, where anglers put in for the sought-after float down the most scenic stretch of the Smith. He has studied the geology of this landscape since he was a boy and watched the river grow in popularity starting in the 1980s.
In the mid-1990s, after years of exploratory drilling in the Sheep Creek area, Cominco American Inc. terminated its leases with private landowners and walked away, unconvinced of the site’s potential, Zieg said. Then in 2008, while working in Alaska for a gold mining firm, he got a call from a rancher who owns a portion of the copper-rich land. By then the price of copper had spiked and several mining companies had approached the rancher and other area landowners interested in leasing their properties. They decided they would only move forward with development if Zieg, a local they knew and trusted, was involved.
At Sandfire’s office in White Sulphur Springs, geologists and engineers shuffled among rows of wooden tables covered in rock cores drilled from the site. Zieg’s favorites were extracted from a portion of the deposit with the highest copper concentrations.
“This is what the excitement is all about,” Zieg says, pointing to the golden yellow mineral embedded in the rocks. He uses a spray bottle to wet the cores, which makes the ore sparkle under the overhead lights.
The site has far exceeded Zieg’s expectations. Sandfire claims it is the second-highest grade copper deposit in development anywhere in the world. At current prices, the ore would fetch around $2.7 billion.
Local support for the project is strong. The Meagher County commission gave its approval to Sandfire’s mine impact plan. Many businesses along the town’s Main St. display weathered signs in their front windows proclaiming support for the project.
Gail Gardiner, 79, has lived here since she was six months old. Her husband was a logger, and she watched the town suffer after local sawmills shuttered in the 1980s. Stores closed. Jobs vanished. People left. The prospect of a copper mine, she said, has restored hope in what has long been a hopeless town. And she believes in Zieg.
“The last person on Earth that would want to pollute the Smith River is Jerry,” Gardiner said one morning while working the front desk of the Spa Hot Springs Motel, one of the town’s main attractions.
Zieg says he was “blindsided” by the furor over potential harm to the Smith. “We’re not just ruthless exploiters of the environment,” he said.
The Smith River is one of the most renowned trout fishing destinations in the state. The scenic 59-mile stretch of river below Camp Baker is so popular, in fact, that floating it requires a state permit, the only one of its kind in Montana. Obtaining one is highly competitive; of the nearly 11,000 permit applications last year, only about 1,200 were issued. Its tributaries provide important spawning habitat for the native trout in the Smith River watershed.
John Herzer co-owns Blackfoot River Outfitters in Missoula, one of many outfitters that run guided trips down the Smith. He’s floated rivers all over the world and puts the Smith near the top of his list, both for the fishing and raw beauty.
“The real issue I have with it,” he said of Black Butte, “is that the local folks think that it’s theirs to mess up, that the river is theirs to take a risk. And it’s not. It’s everybody’s. It’s yours, it’s mine ... It’s a national treasure.”
It’s a position many outside the county line share. Commissioners in the state capital of Helena, 50 miles to the west, passed a nonbinding resolution in 2016 urging the state not to approve the mine unless Sandfire could “demonstrate with absolute certainty that the proposal will not harm” the Smith. The nonprofit American Rivers put the Smith on its annual list of “most endangered rivers” in 2015 and 2016, citing the mine’s “imminent threat,” and more than 11,000 people signed onto a petition urging state officials not to gamble with such an important watershed.
Great Falls Mayor Bob Kelly, whose city of nearly 60,000 people sits downstream, was among several Montana mayors who backed a failed ballot initiative last year that would have required DEQ to deny permits for any new hard rock mine unless its reclamation plan provided “clear and convincing evidence” that it would not require perpetual treatment of contaminated water. Industry and other opponents painted the initiative as a disguised mining ban aimed specifically at blocking projects like Black Butte.
Kelly’s primary concern is that his town isn’t on the hook financially if there’s a mishap. Montana’s environmental laws have done little to ensure mining companies clean up after themselves, he said.
A 2018 report by conservation group Earthworks found that 11 out of the 12 hard rock mines that began operating in Montana since 1980 failed to meet the water quality predictions made during permitting, often resulting in drinking water contamination and harm to fisheries. Five of those mines had reclamation bonds that were inadequate to cover clean-up costs, it found. Hard rock mining outside Montana has a similar track record. The industry is among the nation’s largest polluters of water resources, responsible for contaminating the headwaters of more than 40% of Western watersheds.
A major risk of sulfide mining is the potential for acid mine drainage. When sulfide-bearing minerals are exposed to air and water they can break down, creating sulfuric acid. Once in motion, this acid leakage can persist indefinitely and wreak havoc on aquatic ecosystems. One need look no further than the Zortman-Landusky mines, a pair of former open-pit cyanide heap leach gold mines in the Little Rocky Mountains of north-central Montana, just south of the Fort Belknap Reservation. Acidic waters laced with heavy metals have been oozing from the site for more than two decades. Runoff from the mines requires perpetual treatment. The company responsible for the disaster, Pegasus Gold, went bankrupt in 1998 and a large chunk of the $77 million in clean-up costs to date has fallen on taxpayers.
Sandfire says its new mine will be a state-of-the-art operation with multiple layers of protection. All entrances to the mine will be 200 feet above the water table. After the copper is removed, crushed waste rock will be combined with a cement paste meant to keep water from flowing through the tailings. Approximately half of the tailings will be piped back into the mine, while the rest will be buried in a lined pit and capped.
“We’ll protect the environment on our worst day,” Rob Scargill, the project director and company CEO, told HuffPost at the company’s office in White Sulphur Springs, which has a population of fewer than 1,000 people.
The effort has had its setbacks, but the state’s analysis to date has found the project would not negatively impact the Smith River and have only “negligible” impacts to the amount of water that flows in Sheep Creek. More than 300 acres of private land will be impacted by surface activities. The only federal permit the company had to obtain was a Clean Water Act permit to disturb less than an acre of wetlands, which it received in 2017. DEQ is currently reviewing comments on the draft environmental review and expects to publish a final impact statement as soon as this summer.
Montana DEQ spokeswoman Kristi Ponozzo said this kind of underground metal mine “is much less common than many of the industrial mineral or rock product mines that have recently been approved, which do not lend themselves for direct comparison.” The design, she said, includes safety and environmental protections “that are less common or have not been implemented at existing mines in the state,” including backfilling the tunnels with cemented tailings.
But opponents say Sandfire’s techniques are unproven. The draft impact statement, which was prepared by an independent third party, notes that if exposed to air and water, the cemented tailings have the potential to weather and release some acid and metals.
The headwaters of the Smith are ultimately not a place that people like Herzer and David Brooks, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited, want to experiment with. Project opponents also fear that this relatively small, short-term project is just the beginning. Sandfire has touted to investors the potential for expanding the life of the mine by decades. It has begun exploring a second high-grade copper deposit located about a mile southeast of the Johnny Lee and staked hundreds of mining claims on adjacent Forest Service lands.
Sandfire isn’t ruling out future exploration, Zieg said, and feels it is important to obtain mineral rights on surrounding federal lands to protect against competition.
“What we really don’t want is a company coming in and carrying out activities that aren’t done in the best way possible,” he said. “That reflects badly on us, the industry and everything.”
Sandfire has agreed not to conduct open pit mining at the project site or on surrounding federal lands for the next 25 years.
The controversy surrounding Black Butte is not unlike those playing out across the West, part of a constant tug-of-war between economic opportunity and environmental protection.
In Alaska, the embattled Pebble Mine is a proposed open-pit copper and gold mine at the headwaters of Bristol Bay, the most productive sockeye salmon fishery in the world. In Minnesota, a Chilean mining firm is looking to build a copper mine less than three miles from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the most visited wilderness in the nation. In Arizona, a Canadian mining firm recently got federal approval to construct the nation’s third largest copper mine in the Santa Rita Mountains, home to endangered jaguars and other species.
Jim Kuipers, a longtime Montana mining engineer and consultant, said that despite critics’ repeated comparisons, the proposed Black Butte mine bears no resemblance to legacy mines like Butte’s Berkeley Pit or proposals like Alaska’s Pebble Mine. In fact, he said Sandfire’s project is one of the best he’s seen; a small, high-grade mine that he says environmentalists should support.
“Do we in Montana oppose all mines?” he asked. “Or do we select some mines and use those to raise the bar not only in Montana, but potentially nationally and elsewhere?”
Sandfire sees Black Butte as an important part of a growing push to decarbonize the global economy ― a sweeping overhaul that scientists at the United Nations have warned the world has just 11 years to complete to stave off potentially catastrophic climate change and ecosystem collapse. Electric cars, solar farms, wind turbines, LED bulbs all require large amounts of copper. Scargill crunched the numbers and found that it would take 30 mines the size of Black Butte to electrify the U.S. car fleet alone.
“You look at the move towards a greener future, less reliance on fossil fuels ― You need to be more and more efficient about the way you use electricity,” Scargill said. “And right now we have no better system for moving electricity around than copper.”
In May, the electric vehicle and solar energy giant Tesla warned of a looming shortage of copper and other essential battery minerals. It remains to be seen if the industry can keep up with mounting global demand, and at what cost to the environment that effort will come.
Here at home, President Donald Trump has prioritized boosting domestic energy and mineral production, in particular, minerals the administration has identified as “critical” to the economic and national security. Upon renewing mineral leases for a subsidiary of Chilean firm Antofagasta to pursue a highly controversial copper mine near Minnesota’s Boundary Waters, Joe Balash, assistant secretary of the Interior Department, said: “Mining strategic metals in the United States is beneficial to national security, national and local economies, and job creation.”
Black Butte has an opportunity to raise the environmental bar ― or maintain the status quo that is the tragic story of mineral extraction in The Treasure State.
Bonnie Gestring, a longtime Montana resident and northwest program director of Earthworks, says she’s been waiting for a new era of mining where the industry can point to a record of keeping its promises to the public. To emphasize her point, Gestring fetched from her office a mason jar full of acid mine drainage that was collected from a gulch near the abandoned Zortman-Landusky mines in 2017. The bright yellow-orange liquid sloshed as she handed it across the table, making clear that I was not to open the lid.
“We have sacrificed a number of places in this state to mining,” she said. “It would be a real shame to lose the Smith.”