DEQ did not assess the impact of the copper mine in the upper Smith River ~ Missoula Current
(CN) – The Montana Department of Environmental Quality did not properly assess the environmental impacts of a new mining technique for use at a proposed copper mine in the upper Smith River in the Montana, lawyers argued in state district court Friday.
The proposed Black Butte underground copper mine near White Sulfur Springs, MT would extract 440 tonnes of ore per day and generate 12.9 million tonnes of tailings from an 1,800-acre mine near the sources of the Smith River , one of the state’s most pristine rivers.
Montana’s Environmental Quality Department issued a mining license to Tintina Resources Inc. in April 2020, for the company to mine the Johnny Lee copper deposit, one of the largest copper deposits in the world. Montana has never seen it.
The state was for follow-up in June 2020 in Meagher County District Court over the state’s alleged failure to properly analyze the long-term effects of the mine. Jenny Harbine, a lawyer for EarthJustice, a nonprofit law firm in Bozeman, MT, argued Friday before Richland County Judge Katherine Bidegaray that the state had failed to properly analyze the nitrogen content of wastewater pumped out of the mine, nor taken into account Tintina’s plan to build a surface tailings pond using new and untested methods.
EarthJustice represents the plaintiffs Trout Unlimited, Montana Environmental Information Center, American Rivers and Earthworks.
Tintina proposes to mix the treated copper mine tailings with cement and store them in a tailings pond. Harbine argued that this was an untested method and that the Montana Department of Environmental Quality failed to properly determine what level of mine waste and cement would be strong enough to protect the environment.
Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality is responsible for investigating all aspects of the effects of metal mining in the state, and courts should show deference to the agency in their decision-making.
In this case, Harbine said, the state “failed to meet those standards” in its review of the Black Butte copper mine and its license. In order to balance the stability of the cementitious tailings with the time required for each coat to dry, new coats would be added every seven to 30 days. The state and Tintina claim that this process would form a solid, hard mass that would be waterproof and trap hazardous materials left over from the copper ore mining process.
Harbine said the state of Montana did not study the performance of the cement tailings facility as it suggests because the proper cement mix has never been field tested.
One of EarthJustice’s main arguments was that this new method of cemented tailings might not form a solid, stable mass of mine waste impermeable to the elements.
Under Tintina’s state-issued mining permit, the top layer of mine waste will not have set until wet tailings are placed on it “layer after layer after layer,” Harbine said. “There is no analysis that the defendants can refer to” regarding the time it takes for the tailings to set up.
“Without this deadline, DEQ’s vague deadlines make no sense,” Harbine said. “There is simply no record evidence of the time set for the (cemented) tailings.”
“There are more questions than answers” as to whether Tintina has struck the right balance between mixing and timing, Harbine said, adding that “it is important that Tintina does it right”.
Montana has a long history of mines that have failed to contain the remaining waste, like the now defunct Zortman Landusky mine, which a bankrupt mining company abandoned and let the state pay for the cleanup costs.
“These are mines that DEQ cleared and predicted to be safe, and in each case they were wrong,” Harbine said, “leaving irreversible contamination and untold loss.”
Because of the “huge potential for failure” of hard rock mining, Harbine said, Montana law now requires a conservative approach to mining permits.
Tintina Resources, she said, is considering “employing new techniques, but are they sufficient to protect against nitrogen releases? Based on the lack of substantial relevant evidence, the state could not have rationally approved the project. “
Harbine said the Montana Department of Environmental Quality had also not addressed how the acid in the tailings pond would affect the strength of the pond.
Exposure to air or water on the surface could result in cracks in the impoundment, which would allow water and air to enter, although Tintina Resources in its mining application compared the acidity of tailings to that of “Dr. Pepper.”
“If Tintina is wrong about the effectiveness… the residue could have a pH as low as two, which is strongly acidic,” Harbine said. “This is far from ensuring that Tintina’s residue will work like Dr. Pepper.”
The Montana Metals Mining Reclamation and the Montana Environmental Policy Act demand an abundance of precautions and they demand assurance that mining facilities are safe and free from potential harm to the environment, Harbine said.
“These laws are meant to protect our lands and waters and they couldn’t be more important in this case. We ask that you return DEQ and the mine to the drawing board to ensure the protection of these resources.
Montana Department of Environmental Quality attorney Sarah Clerget said nearly 60 independent professional consultants weighed in on the Black Butte mine plan and it took the state 11 years to refine Tintina’s plan.
The Black Butte Mine’s final environmental impact statement is over 1,000 pages long, and Tintina’s plan went through three stages of “letters of deficiency,” Clerget said. Although there are concerns that the copper mine could affect water quality at Sheep Creek, a tributary of the Smith River in Montana, Clerget clarified that the mine is 19 miles from the Smith River. .
“This has been a demanding, comprehensive and comprehensive review,” said Clerget, “and the fact that we have redundancy over redundancy means it’s safe.”
Harbine said the state had rejected an alternative in the mine application to remove dangerous and highly acidic pyrite from copper ore tailings. However, State Attorney Clerget said the concentrated pyrite removed from the tailings is much more volatile and that Tintina should “create an entirely separate stream of pyrite tailings, and that requires more chemicals than if you had to process all of them. the residues together “.
Not only that, but the Montana Department of Environmental Quality found that by removing the pyrite, only 45% of the pyrite concentrate tailings would enter the mountain, creating an additional 7.6 million tonnes of mining material. that would be needed for storage.
And, said Clerget, “There is no guarantee that putting it back underground would be safe. This has never been tested and would greatly increase the mine’s footprint. There is simply no way it would have a net environmental benefit – which is why we rejected it. “
Meagher County, where the mine is said to be located, has seen extractive industries such as lumber decline over the past 40 years. Sawmills are long gone, and tourism has tried to take their place. Agriculture – mainly cattle ranching – is the mainstay of the county.
The Black Butte mine would give Meagher County a financial boost it hadn’t seen in decades, County attorney Burt Hurwitz said in court.
“This process worked,” Hurwitz said. “It helped the community understand that this type of mine is unlike any other mine ever offered in Montana. “