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A drill performs core sampling for then-Tintina Alaska Exploration Inc. in this file photo.

Eliza Wiley file photo

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality says it needs more time than required by law to analyze a proposed copper mine near White Sulphur Springs.

DEQ sent a letter Tuesday to Sandfire Resources America, the company formerly called Tintina Resources, requesting a consultation about the legally mandated one-year timeframe for completion of an environmental impact statement. Last year, DEQ accepted Sandfire’s mining application for the Black Butte Copper Project as complete, triggering the 12-month period for environmental analysis. An EIS is required to consider potential environmental effects and alternatives of the proposed project.

“We’ve thought all along that 12 months is going to be unattainable, unrealistic and the only way we’d meet a 12-month timeframe is to compromise the integrity of the analysis or public involvement,” said Tom Livers, DEQ director.

Sandfire CEO John Shannahan said they also believed early on that 12 months was unlikely given the robust review and public interest in the project.

“We understood right from the onset that 12 months is unlikely, and we acknowledged that,” he said. “We want them to stick to the timeframe as best they can and we want to continue to work with them and provide any information they need as the project moves forward.”

The Legislature enacted the 12-month requirement in 2011. Livers recalled two main drivers of the changes. First, a desire from industry to determine the viability of a mine earlier in the regulatory process. Second, a sense of frustration with an open-ended EIS process that Livers says DEQ has taken steps to address.

Since 2011 DEQ has undertaken four permits, two of which related to existing mines and the timeframe was met. Two permits for new mines ran nearly twice as long, with evolving analysis of hydrology a major factor and a duty to consider issues such as socioeconomic and transportation, Livers said.

“The 12-month timeframe is problematic – we’re frankly looking at it and considering the possibility of proposing legislation,” he said, adding that DEQ has taken the administrative steps it could to speed up the process.

DEQ also says it recently received pertinent information from Sandfire, including an application for its air quality permit and railhead locations. Livers said the company has had a “good working relationship” through the permitting process.

Black Butte has been controversial since its proposal.

Supporters tout the mine as an economic boon that, with modern mining practices, can protect the environment.

Critics have organized opposition to the mine as a landmark issue, citing its location in the Smith River watershed and questioning the impacts to the iconic waterway.

An organizing committee including opponents of the mine recently launched an effort to place a citizen initiative on the ballot addressing mining pollution. If the initiative makes it in front of voters and passes, new mines would be required to submit operating plans that do not include perpetual water treatment.

DEQ says it is too early to know if Black Butte would be subject to the potential legal changes.

"Based on the very limited knowledge we have of the ballot initiative on water treatment, we don’t know that it would apply to the Black Butte Copper project," said Kristi Ponozzo, DEQ public policy director. "The Black Butte project does not propose perpetual water treatment after closure." 

Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin


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