April 17th, 2024

Montana Supreme Court rules in favor of major copper mine

By Matthew Brown, The Associated Press on February 26, 2024.

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) – Stalled work on a major copper mine proposed in central Montana can proceed after the state’s Supreme Court ruled Monday that officials had adequately reviewed the project’s environmental effects.

The court’s 5-2 decision overturns a 2022 lower court ruling that effectively blocked work on the Black Butte mine north of White Sulphur Springs by revoking its permit.

Attorneys for Montana Trout Unlimited and other conservation groups claimed the mine’s permit from the Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ, was unlawful.

“We are satisfied that DEQ made a reasoned decision,” Justice Beth Baker wrote in Monday’s 65-page majority opinion. She added that state officials “made a scientifically driven permitting decision that was supported by substantial evidence,” including engineering reports, scientific studies and comparisons with other mines around the world.

The underground mine sponsored by Vancouver-based Sandfire Resources is proposed along a tributary of the Smith River, a waterway so popular among boaters that the state holds an annual lottery to decide who can float down it.

State officials had argued that the mine’s permit included requirements that would protect the river.

Preliminary work at the site including some road construction began in 2021. It’s being built on private land and would extract 15.3 million tons of copper-laden rock and waste over 15 years – roughly 440 tons a day.

Opponents say the waste material will threaten water quality and trout populations in the Smith River. A separate challenge of the mine’s water permit is pending.

“Our fight to protect the Smith is not over,” said David Brooks with Montana Trout Unlimited. “We will continue to pursue our coalition’s claims of illegal water use by the mine.”

Sandfire Resources Vice President Nancy Schlepp said the company had been unable to do any work underground pending resolution of the case before the high court.

She said the timeline for construction and how it will be financed were still being discussed by the company’s board of directors.

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