By Corin Cates-Carney
May 2, 2019 - Around 60 people sat on the bleachers of the White Sulphur Springs high school gym Tuesday night, 15 miles south of where a proposed underground mine could remove more than 14 million of tons of copper-enriched rock from the earth.
The meeting was the last of three for public input on the state’s draft environmental impact statement on the controversial Black Butte Mining Project, located on private land near the Little Belt Mountains.
Ron Burns was among a half dozen people to speak in support of the Black Butte Copper Project during a public meeting in White Sulphur Springs April 30, 2019.
Photo by Corin Cates-Carney, Montana Public Radio
"We own property within about a half mile of where the mine will be, and we are, I guess what we've always said is we are cautiously optimistic," Maggie Buckingham says.
Buckingham says she owns a ranch with her husband not far from White Sulphur Springs, and they’re not really true opponents or supporters of the proposed mine.
The mining project has some worried that it could threaten a tributary of the Smith River, one of Montana’s most popular destinations for angling and rafting.
But Buckingham says she trusts the recent draft analysis from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, which says the copper mine would cause little-to-no harm to the local landscape and waterways.
"We trust them to do their job and make it safe."
DEQ published its draft environmental impact statement in March and will take public input on it until May 10. During public meetings in Great Falls and Livingston the crowds were more split over their concern over the project’s impact on the Smith and its tributary Sheep Creek.
But White Sulphur Springs locals shared none of that concern Tuesday night.
Ron Burns says he lives and ranches on the Smith River west of town. He was one of about a half dozen people who all spoke in support of the copper mine.
"And for all those that seem to be opposed, or are afraid of the water in the Smith River, the best way to save the Smith would be when those people draw a permit to float, if they would just tear that up and give the river a little break."
Others Tuesday night accused environmental advocacy groups of exaggerating the potential harms caused by the potential mine.
Burns says he’s a member of the Meagher County Stewardship Council, which announced Wednesday that it reached an agreement with Sandfire Resources America to not move forward with any open pit mining in the county for the next 25 years.
The Montana DEQ says Sandfire has not indicated it wants to build an open-pit mine, which are more associated with potential water and wildlife impacts.
The draft environmental impact statement from the company's underground proposal from DEQ says there will be "no adverse impacts related to water quality are anticipated" for Sheep Creek.
"I would say that those of us who are specifically digging into the draft EIS, we’re seeing some real problems with it," says David Brooks, the Executive Director of Montana Trout Unlimited.
Brooks says an analysis his group commissioned that is still being worked on says DEQ underestimates how much water is going to flow into the mine and will need to be pumped out and treated.
The DEQ’s environmental impact statement says less than 1 percent of the Sheep Creek watershed area could be impacted by the mining activity, which would have an negligible impact on surface water runoff or flows in the creek.
"It appears to be grossly underestimated in this case," Brooks says.
Montana Trout Unlimited, along with another environmental advocacy groups, have also criticized the length of time for public input on the draft environmental review. The current 60 day period is required by Montana law.
However, comments from locals Tuesday night often times drifted away from the debate over the environmental impacts of the mining project.
Barry Hedrich says the town needs the 240-plus jobs the mine is expected to create over its 15-year lifespan. The company says its mining jobs would pay between $35 and $68 per hour.
"It would be great to see some more industry back in this community to help employ some of the young people that we graduate from White Sulphur Springs,” Hedrich says.
The environmental impact statement says the number of workers could grow the population in Meagher County and add more than $8 million in tax revenue to the White Sulphur Springs School District at peak production. But it will also burden local infrastructure and health care capacity.
Montana DEQ officials say the final environmental impact statement for the Black Butte Copper Project could come out this fall. DEQ will have webinars about the mining project Wednesday and Thursday night starting at 6 p.m.