The Smith River has always been a special place in my family’s heart. In August of 1969, my grandparents purchased a 100 x 150 foot lot in the Smith River Canyon for $1200. About 5 years earlier, my grandfather helped others build cabins in the same area and took advantage of the awesome fly fishing. He says “That’s what really solidified that it was the right place…for a family.” My grandmother jokes that it was only the right place for his fly fishing. A few other folks also purchased land around the same time as my grandparents and over time the area has grown into a community of 24 property owners. A large amount of them hail from Great Falls and Helena, with the exception of a few others from around the state. Now a majority of the second generation property owners also have their own children. Their ages range from toddlers to college aged kids. In recent years, the area’s popularity has driven others to purchase land and build cabins of their own.
Fast forward to 2016. My family is now having a hard time relaxing with the thought of a proposed copper mine threatening the Smith. By now, most have heard about the Canadian mining company Tintina Resources, which plans to build its “Black Butte Copper Mine” on private land near the headwaters of the Smith on Sheep Creek. This poses a few different risks. What is known as acid mine drainage can occur. This is when the mining process exposes sulfide minerals to water and air. A chemical reaction then occurs and forms sulfuric acid. Sheep Creek is vital to the Smith’s water flow and spawns half the trout that populate it. Given that fact, the mine drainage could ultimately ruin the world class angling the Smith is known for. On the other hand, acid mine drainage is harmful to people. Local ranchers and property owners rely on the Smith for drinking water and irrigation.
Exposure to high levels of copper can also increase the risk of lung cancer and coronary heart disease. Acid mine drainage can occur long after mining ends, so there would be no immediate way to tell if humans are exposed to it. Another risk of mining is the pumping of groundwater. In most years, the Smith’s water levels become very low. When mines pump groundwater it can lower water levels even more, creating a particularly stressful environment on trout. This would greatly affect the fishing potential. Lastly, mining activities have the potential to expose nasty chemicals like arsenic and lead. These chemicals could drain into the groundwater and pollute the Smith, and no one wants to see that happen.
Tintina Resources, which is essentially a penny stock company, says the mine will produce around 200 jobs. The locals in the nearby town of White Sulphur Springs are particularly excited for a chance to boost their suffering economy. The town has experienced tough times since the local lumber mill shut down around 30 years ago. According to Tintina, the mine is projected to have an active life of only 14 years.
There are a few different reasons we have a right to be nervous about the proposal of this mine. Firstly, Montana has quite a history of failed mines. Mines near Anaconda, Lewistown, and Malta have proven to be disastrous in the past. Secondly, Sandfire Resources, an Australian mining company, has 53% stake in the project. Do we really believe that foreign investors 8,000 away carry the best interests of Montanans in mind?
Thirdly, many mining companies have tried to ease locals by stating they have the latest, most environmentally friendly technology, but we should be weary of these promises. In the past there have been a handful of times that mining operators underestimated the effects their mines had on water quality. Also, mines have what is known as a tailing pond, which has also been referred to as a mine dump. This is basically a pond that stores the chemical waste from the mining activities. Tailing ponds are described as some of the largest environmental liabilities in the mining industry. Tintina says that the mine would be the first to use cement in their barriers to hold the waste in. Speaking about the potential pollution, CEO Bruce Hooper said that “We don’t see any potential — especially with the cemented tailings — we can have any detrimental effects on the environment.” This is a large claim. How can we be 100% sure that nothing will happen to the Smith? The Smith is no place to test out a new science experiment.
The first time I saw the Smith I was still in diapers, and for the last 21 years of my life I have been able to call it my second home. The sight of it is quite breathtaking. There is nothing quite like watching the sunset beat down on the limestone walls or the light of a full moon reflecting off its surface. One of my favorite sounds in the world is the sound of the Smith’s peaceful flowing water. It is a place we go to relax, and reflect on the nature God has given us. When someone experiences the Smith for the first time, there is always a look of astonishment in their eyes. They take in the scenery and are immediately excited to explore what the river has to offer. Whether that is fishing, rafting, inner-tubing or cliff jumping. Whether you are old or young, the Smith has no age limit, but something to offer for everyone.
For the last 47 years, my grandparents have seen the Smith River thrive. My family has been very fortunate to have spent as much time on the Smith as we have. If you have experienced the five-star fishing or the gorgeous multi-day float, you know how important it is. The Smith is Montana’s only permitted river, and the level of demand has increased over the years. From 2006 to 2014 the amount of floaters on the Smith has increased from 3,941 to 5,375. In addition, the total spending by Montana residents and non-residents for fishing was $7,826,683 last year. Total, the Smith brings in around $10,000,000 in revenue for the state of Montana. If anything were to happen to the Smith, these economic benefits would come to an abrupt end.
At 22 years old, it’s a very strange thought that there’s a possibility that I might, in a sense, live longer than the Smith. Growing up around the river, I want my children and my grandchildren to be able to do the same. Learning how to fish from my grandfather on the Smith is something I appreciate to this day. As a lifelong fisherman, he would be heartbroken if anything were to happen to the river and I’m sure many others would feel the same. If the Smith was heavily polluted, nearly 50 years of family history would be reduced to nothing more than a memory. The same goes for the other 24 property owners in the area. Future generations shouldn’t have to hear stories about the Smith and what it once was. A copper mine might create jobs in the short-run but is it worth it? One mistake by Tintina Resources could kill the Smith, and that’s why preserving it is absolutely necessary. Taking a gamble on the Smith River is not in Montanans best interest, so I urge you to take action and say no to the Black Butte Copper Mine. Contact Governor Steve Bullock by signing this petition to save our Smith River for future generations.
About the Author
Colin Angland is a senior at the University of Montana studying marketing.