Montana District Court Rejects Proposed Copper Mine–Huge Victory for the Smith River

Earlier this week, a long-awaited court case in Montana received a decision. Judge Katherine Bidegaray wrote, “This Court finds that DEQ’s [Montana Department of Environmental Quality] decision to permit the Black Butte Copper Mine was arbitrary, capricious, and unlawful.” The mine, which was approved by DEQ in 2020, would have generated millions of of tons of toxic mine waste and discharged nitrogen-laden wastewater into a tributary of the Smith River, Sheep Creek. Most trout anglers and river-rats alike fantasize over the chance to secure a permit and float down the Smith River through absolutely breathtaking canyons and pristine trout water. By all accounts it is without a doubt a place that’s worth protecting and preserving.


“The facts of this case have been clear to us for the better part of a decade. We are glad to see that this court agreed that the Black Butte Copper Mine threatens to pollute and dewater some of the most important clean water sources of the Smith River,” said David Brooks, Montana Trout Unlimited. “This is a win for trout, clean water, sacred Native American lands, and Smith River lovers for generations to come.”

Montanans have overwhelmingly stood firmly in opposition to this mine, since Sandfire Resources Inc. applied for a permit in 2014. For them, the natural beauty of the Smith River and its recreational opportunities are far more valuable  than threatened by the profits of a foreign-owned mine. Before DEQ permitted the mine, some 12,000 Montanans submitted comment with the vast majority critical of the proposal. This decision was certainly a validation for many of these Montanans who rallied for their home waters.

Ultimately, the Judge found that DEQ had failed to conduct proper analyses and violated key policies under Montana laws. For example, “DEQ also didn’t analyze how nitrogen in wastewater discharged into Sheep Creek could worsen devastating algal blooms that rob trout and other aquatic life of oxygen and habitat,” writes Laura Lundquist of the Missoula Current.

Photo Credit: Bill Pfeiffer, Montana TU

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