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Black Butte Copper Mine moves closer to starting construction

Posted at 7:07 PM, Jun 14, 2024

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’re getting closer to starting construction, but there’s more work to do first.

“It is a long, strenuous process to get through – and I think that's okay,” said Nancy Schlepp, vice president of communications and government relations for Tintina Montana.

Tintina, a subsidiary of Sandfire Resources America, has completed the first phase of construction at the 450-acre mine site, located in Meagher County about 17 miles north of White Sulphur Springs. That includes some access roads and a pond that will hold runoff water from the site.

The mine itself will be hundreds of feet underground, below Sheep Creek. What will eventually be the entrance to a long access tunnel is now clearly visible on a hillside.

“As soon as we have funding and bonding in place, the first thing that we’ll want to start is the tunneling, because it'll take about 18 months to get into the ore body,” said Schlepp.

Schlepp says it’s likely to be well over a year before construction work gets going again in earnest, and the entire construction process will take around two years.

Black Butte Copper Project
Nancy Schlepp, vice president of communications and government relations for Tintina Montana, at the entrance to the Black Butte Copper project site.

Tintina leaders say there’s a growing need for copper worldwide, including for things like electronics, electric vehicles and wind turbines. They say the Black Butte site is an ideal resource, because its copper deposits are particularly high-grade – with a larger percentage of metal than many other active mines.

The company plans to build a mill on site, to grind the rock into fine powder and separate the copper ore. The ore will be transported outside the state by train to be smelted into copper metal, while the remaining materials – called tailings – will be mixed with cement and poured out over a thick plastic liner to harden. Once the project is completed, the company intends to cap the tailings facility with another liner as part of the reclamation.

Black Butte Copper Mine
Black Butte Copper Mine

Several environmental groups have attempted to block the mine. They filed a lawsuit challenging Tintina’s operating permit, arguing that the Montana Department of Environmental Quality hadn’t done enough analysis on the possible impacts – particularly from the tailings facility. A district judge sided with the plaintiffs, but the Montana Supreme Court reversed the decision and reinstated the permit.

In March, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a second case, which questioned whether Tintina needed water rights to account for the water they remove from the mine during operations. The justices have not yet announced a decision in that case.

Advocates also announced last month that they were submitting thousands of signatures on a petition asking the federal government to put a mineral withdrawal on public lands near the Black Butte project, to prevent expansion of mining in the area. Tintina has filed mining claims on nearby National Forest lands. The conservation groups said they’re concerned that additional mining activity would have a negative impact on Sheep Creek – and on the Smith River, which it flows into.

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

Schlepp said Tintina is making extensive efforts to protect the environment as the Black Butte project goes forward.

“Every time we come up with an idea that could take this a little further environmentally, the answer internally has always been, ‘Yes, let's do it,’” she said.

She said they’ve signed a memorandum of understanding promising no open-pit mining in the area to allow current uses like ranching to continue, and that they’ve supported the creation of a Meagher County Stewardship Council to provide community voices on issues surrounding the mine. She said building the entrance above the water table is intended to address concerns about acidic mine drainage.

“We want to make sure that everything is addressed and done well,” Schlepp said. “Our approach has been, if we can prove that we can do this environmentally sound, it's great for our county, it's great for our state – and quite truthfully important for our nation, on the front of critical materials and on the front of North American defense.”

Schlepp said the Johnny Lee deposit, the main body of copper Tintina is currently permitted to mine, is expected to last around 11 years. The company is also looking at a potential second deposit nearby, which would require an additional permitting process if they move forward with it. They’ve also been drilling core samples from around the site, looking for more copper.

“Drilling is a very expensive endeavor, so is there hope that this can be a little longer mine life? Absolutely,” said Schlepp.

Tintina expects the Black Butte project to bring several hundred jobs to Meagher County: 200 to 400 contracted positions during the construction process and around 240 full-time jobs once the mine opens. On Main Street in White Sulphur Springs, you can see signs in businesses’ windows reading “We Support Black Butte Copper.”

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

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

“We have businesses opening up every year here, we have growth, the school system numbers are moving in the right direction – and that that didn't happen 15 years ago, we were losing people,” she said.

However, she acknowledged there’s also more that needs to be addressed.

“There are going to be some challenges we have to deal with, such as housing, which all of Montana is dealing with right now, and we definitely want to be proactive on how we do that,” she said.

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