Smith River depends on our vigilance
Great Falls Tribune | Gloria Flora and Steve Gilbert
April 17, 2014
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First the Blackfoot and now the Smith?
You’d think after the tens of millions we have had to spend cleaning up after mining companies that they’d stop targeting our finest rivers with their experiments.
But thanks to the vigilance and stewardship of concerned property owners, citizens and the organization that represent them, Montana continues to boast prolific trout streams, abundant wildlife and clean water. And we all want to keep it that way.
A recent guest opinion by Mark Lambrecht on March 28, director of a state industry group, questions the intentions of two conservation organizations that filed a legal challenge over a mining company’s proposal to explore for copper at the headwaters of the Smith River.
As current and former board members for those organizations, we have spent considerable time experiencing, by foot and afloat, the stunning beauty and the robust trout of this beloved river. We care deeply about protecting its high-quality waters and the people, wildlife and fish that depend on them.
The Smith River’s health depends on clean, cold water from its tributaries to sustain its blue-ribbon trout fishery, which generates more than $1.2 million annually from anglers and recreationists. The water is also absolutely essential for the many farms and ranches along the Smith.
We already ask a lot of this river. The demand for water often exceeds available flows, creating consistent challenges for downstream water users, floaters and anglers.
Tintina Resources, a Canadian company with no other mines, wants to develop a large copper mine at its headwaters, starting with a major underground tunnel it planned for this summer. This project was a far cry from typical exploration, which usually involves drilling core samples about the diameter of a beer can. Instead, Tintina was proposing to dig an 18-foot-wide by 18-foot-high mile-long tunnel below the water table. It would have had to pump out so much ground water to keep the tunnel dry that the water table would have dropped by as much as 75 feet!
Tintina would also have had to dig into sulfur containing rock. Exposing sulfur to air and water results in sulfuric acid (battery acid) — a significant long-term risk to fish and human health. This acid mine drainage is the reddish-orange water found throughout mining regions in Montana. No one wants that in the Smith.
Along with nearly 4,000 citizens, our organizations, involved at the earliest stages of the proposal, submitted comments about the risks of dewatering and water pollution. Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks raised similar, very serious, concerns about the project.
Although Lambrecht claims those issues were addressed, they clearly were not. We asked the court to require a full environmental impact statement to take a closer look at the impacts to the watershed, since this massive tunnel is clearly the first stage of large-scale mining, not merely exploration, and to guarantee that the proponents comply with the state’s non-degradation law that protects high-quality waters from careless destruction.
In the face of this legal challenge, the company withdrew its proposal for a major exploration tunnel, stating that it would use less invasive methods to get the information it needs and come back with a full mine proposal, which will undergo a full environmental review.
Mining corporations in Montana have a long track record, past and present, of making promises of no impact, but leaving behind dead streams, lasting pollution and significant clean-up costs that we taxpayers end up covering.
Groups like ours, made up of regular citizens, including teachers, nurses, ranchers, hunters and anglers, play an important role in holding both the polluters and the state accountable for protecting Montana’s clean water.
No. The DEQ and the mining industry have not earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to risky ventures on the Smith River, and we will join other Montanans in taking action to prevent destructive proposals from impacting the Smith River — like we just did.
Keeping Montana’s waters clean and healthy takes constant vigilance, and we proudly support Montanans in continuing the long legacy of stewardship that makes the Smith River such a Montana treasure.
Steve Gilbert of Helena is a wildlife biologist, an Orvis Guide of the Year, and a former board member of the Montana Environmental Information Center. Gloria Flora is a former supervisor of the Lewis and Clark National Forest, and a board member of Earthworks, who now lives in Washington state.