Mining project must be weighed against the value of the Smith River

by Derf Johnson, Scott Bosse and Bonnie Gestring
| October 9, 2020 7:00 AM

This past summer, folks from across Montana and around the country fished for wild trout while the cool, clean waters of the Smith River flowed underneath them. They sat around campfires, telling stories of good times gone by, with friends and family while their kids played nearby, making wishes on stars. They sat under the shade of massive limestone cliffs, cooling off after a hike to the canyon rim, where they passed Native American cultural sites as they climbed to some of the most picturesque views in Montana.

They traveled to the Smith River valley for solitude, recreation, and relaxation. They spent money on guides, groceries and gas, preparing for a vacation that many can only dream about.

They came from all walks of life with truly only one thing in common — their love for the Smith River. It’s Montana’s premier recreational float, winding north from White Sulphur Springs to just outside of Great Falls, flowing approximately 60 miles through a deep canyon devoid of any major development and replete with wildlife.

Many of these people were probably unaware of the existential threat lurking just upstream from them.

An international mining conglomerate (Sandfire Resources) has started to make preliminary moves to build an underground copper mine in an acidic ore body adjacent to and directly beneath the Smith’s most important rainbow trout spawning tributary, Sheep Creek. If the courts allow the mine to go through, it will forever change the Smith River’s water quality and everything that depends on it. So far, this activity has been only limited to pre-mining activities such as road building and tailings impoundment construction.

But the thought of the mine fully moving forward is deeply distressing to most anyone who’s had an opportunity to float the river, or dreams of doing so.

Our organizations have taken this threat seriously right from the start because we know how historic mining has damaged Montana’s waterways. We’ve been present with our members at every public hearing and event surrounding the mine, submitted numerous technical reports to different agencies in order to influence the permitting process, held rallies to get the attention of the decision makers and the media, and in the process created a committed movement of people, from all walks of life and backgrounds, that would like to protect the Smith River forever.

Now, we’re in a new round of the same fight. Earlier this year, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality issued a permit for the mine, and we immediately took the agency to court for some very serious flaws in its permit that directly threaten the natural wonders of the Smith River. We’ve also intervened in Sandfire’s attempt to acquire water rights for the project at the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. Thankfully, Sandfire cannot actually start mining unless it acquires these water rights and until it posts a reclamation bond for the actual mine. These processes will now play out over the next several months and even years, during which time we will continue our fierce advocacy on behalf of the Smith River.

Places like the Smith River are rare and dwindling. If the coronavirus pandemic has shown us anything this past summer, it is that we desperately need places like the Smith River to nourish our souls and give us hope that better days lie ahead.

Johnson is with the Montana Environmental Information Center; Bosse is with American Rivers; and Gestring is with Earthworks.