Start of construction for copper mine at White Sulphur Springs is getting closer

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS – A proposed underground copper mine near White Sulphur Springs has been a big topic in Montana for years as it goes through permitting processes and legal challenges. Now, the owners of the Black Butte Copper Project say they are getting closer to starting construction, but there is more work to be done before that.

“It’s a long, arduous process that we have to go through – and I think that’s OK,” said Nancy Schlepp, Tintina Montana’s vice president of communications and government relations.

Tintina, a subsidiary of Sandfire Resources America, has completed the first phase of construction on its 450-acre mine site in Meagher County, approximately 17 miles north of White Sulphur Springs. This includes several access roads and a pond that will capture the site's runoff water.

Jonathon Ambarian

The entrance to the Black Butte Copper Mine main access tunnel is now clearly visible on a hill on the project site.

The mine itself will be several hundred metres underground, beneath Sheep Creek. What will be the entrance to a long access tunnel is now clearly visible on a hill.

“As soon as we have secured the financing and the guarantees, the first thing we want to do is start building the tunnel, because it will take about 18 months until we penetrate the ore deposit,” said Schlepp.

According to Schlepp, it will probably take well over a year before construction work really starts again, and the entire construction process will take around two years.

Black Butte Copper Project

Jonathon Ambarian

Nancy Schlepp, Tintina Montana's Vice President of Communications and Government Relations, at the entrance to the Black Butte Copper project site.

Tintina officials say there is a growing global demand for copper, including for products such as electronics, electric vehicles and wind turbines. They say the Black Butte site is an ideal resource because its copper deposits are particularly high-quality – with a higher metal content than many other operating mines.

The company plans to build a mill on site to grind the rock into a fine powder and separate the copper ore. The ore will be shipped out of the state by rail and melted into copper metal, while the remaining materials – called tailings – will be mixed with cement and poured over a thick plastic sheet to harden. Once the project is complete, the company intends to cover the tailings facility with another sheet as part of the remediation.

Black Butte Copper Project

Jonathon Ambarian

A model of the proposed Black Butte Copper Mine at Tintina Montana's office in White Sulphur Springs

Several environmental groups have tried to prevent the mine from being built. They filed suit challenging Tintina's operating permit, arguing that the Montana Department of Environmental Quality had not adequately studied the potential impacts, particularly the tailings dump. A district judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, but the Montana Supreme Court overturned the decision and reinstated the permit.

In March, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a second case, which raised the question of whether Tintina needs water rights to pay for the water it pumps from the mine during operations. The justices have not yet issued a decision in that case.

Activists also announced last month that they were submitting thousands of signatures to a petition calling on the federal government to allow mineral extraction on public land near the Black Butte project to prevent expanded mining in the area. Tintina has mining claims on nearby national forest land. The conservation groups expressed concern that additional mining activity could have negative impacts on Sheep Creek and the Smith River, into which it flows.

Black Butte Copper Project

Jonathon Ambarian

A view from the Black Butte Copper project site in Meagher County.

Schlepp said Tintina is making extensive environmental protection efforts as part of the Black Butte project.

“Every time we had an idea that could move things forward a little bit on the environmental front, the internal response was always, 'Yes, let's do it,'” she said.

She said they had signed a memorandum of understanding pledging not to open pit mine the area to allow current uses such as ranching to continue, and they had supported the formation of a Meagher County Stewardship Council to represent community opinion on issues surrounding the mine. She said building the entrance above the water table was to address concerns about acidic mine waters.

“We want to make sure everything is approached and done well,” Schlepp said. “Our approach has been, if we can prove we can do this in an environmentally friendly way, it's great for our county, it's great for our state — and quite frankly, it's important for our nation as it relates to critical materials and North American defense.”

Black Butte Copper Project

Jonathon Ambarian

Copper ore samples from the Johnny Lee deposit of the Black Butte Copper Project, on display at Tintina Montana's White Sulphur Springs office.

Schlepp said the Johnny Lee deposit, the main amount of copper Tintina is currently permitted to mine, is expected to last about 11 years. The company is also looking at a possible second deposit nearby, which would require an additional permitting process if they continue to work on it. They have also taken drill core samples around the deposit to look for more copper.

“Drilling is a very expensive undertaking. So is there any hope that this can extend the life of the mine a little? Absolutely,” said Schlepp.

Tintina expects the Black Butte project to create several hundred jobs in Meagher County: 200 to 400 contract jobs during construction and about 240 full-time jobs once the mine is open. On Main Street in White Sulphur Springs, signs reading “We Support Black Butte Copper” are visible in store windows.

Black Butte Copper Project

Jonathon Ambarian

Some businesses in White Sulphur Springs hang signs in their windows to express their support for the Black Butte Copper Project.

Schlepp, who is from Meagher County, said there are positive signs in the community.

“Every year new businesses open here, we are seeing growth and the numbers in the school system are moving in the right direction. That would not have been the case 15 years ago, we would have lost people,” she said.

However, she acknowledged that further aspects need to be addressed.

“We're going to have some challenges to overcome, like the housing issue that all of Montana is struggling with right now, and we definitely want to be proactive about that,” she said.

Schlepp said the city and county have received grants from the state to help them address these issues.

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