Black Butte Mine can move forward rules MT Supreme Court

Montana Supreme Court
Posted at 2:03 PM, Feb 26, 2024

HELENA — The Montana Supreme Court has ruled 5-2 that the Black Butte Copper Mine can move forward, overturning a District Court ruling that invalidated their mining permit.

The Black Butte Copper Mine is a planned underground copper mine to be located near White Sulphur Springs by Sheep Creek, a tributary of the Smith River.

Opponents of the mine have raised concerns about how mining by-products could affect downstream water quality.

In 2020, environmental groups filed a lawsuit challenging the operating permit for the project, saying DEQ hadn’t done enough analysis on the possible impacts of the mine before issuing the permit.

Last year, District Court Judge Katherine Bidegaray ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor, saying DEQ had “dismissed without adequate analysis” potential changes to the planned operation that could have addressed some of the environmental concerns raised.

In the opinion of the majority, Supreme Court Justice Beth Baker said DEQ did follow the law when issuing the permit for Black Butte Copper Mine.

“After carefully reviewing the record, we are satisfied that DEQ made a reasoned decision. Compiling an extensive record of scientific studies, expert examinations, engineering reports, testing, and comparison with other mining facilities around the world, and after considering a wide range of comments from members of the public, including the Appellees, DEQ made a scientifically driven permitting decision that was supported by substantial evidence,” wrote Baker.

The majority opinion noted the project underwent extensive review with two public comment periods and seven public meetings.

Read the full opinion:

Tintina Montana applied in 2015 to build and operate the Black Butte Copper Mine. After five years of review, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality issued a permit for its operation under the Montana Metal Mine Reclamation Act.

Nancy Schlepp, vice president of communications for Sandfire Resources America, told MTN previously that they had been waiting on any underground work on the Black Butte project while the legal action continued. However, she said they are able to move forward with Phase 1 of the project: building facilities on the surface and an access road. Schlepp said Phase 1 work could be completed within the next year.

Lincoln Greenidge, CEO of Sandfire America shared, “Today’s victory in the Montana Supreme Court is a validation of the thoughtful and deliberate efforts of the Sandfire America team to design a world-class, environmentally safe mining project from the beginning. The fact is, ours is the most reviewed and examined proposed project in the history of Montana mining. The Court record stands at over 90,000 pages of testimony, information, and analysis. We thank the justices for their ruling, and their ability to recognize the amount of effort and extensive work that has gone into this project. Now, we look forward to progressing the project in a safe, responsible, and sustainable manner.”

The environmental groups – including Montana Trout Unlimited, Montana Environmental Information Center, Earthworks and American Rivers – called the ruling from the Montana Supreme Court a significant setback, but said their challenges against the project weren't over.

“Today’s decision is a setback in the fight to protect Montana’s beloved Smith River, but we remain committed to protecting the river and all who depend on it,” said Jenny Harbine, an Earthjustice attorney representing the conservation groups. “Our challenge to the mine’s dewatering scheme is pending before the Montana Supreme Court and presents another opportunity to defend the integrity of this watershed.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated with comments from Sandfire America and the environmental groups who filed the lawsuit challenging the operating permit for the project.