By Brad Reynolds
The 1960s were a time of self-reflection and protest in American history. Social issues concerning civil rights and America’s place in foreign conflicts were being taken into the streets as crowds gathered in support or opposition of these ideas. Meanwhile, environmental issues were being brought to the forefront as well. Americans were becoming hyperaware of their impact on the Earth. Industries such as logging and mining were now under public scrutiny; what was more important – the jobs and resources created by these industries or the long-term survival of our ecosystems? Was there a way to find balance between the two? Could an industry such as mining succeed without sacrificing the environment?
That’s what I wanted to know. Like many Montanans in the area, I had seen the billboards and advertisements in opposition to the Black Butte Copper Project, a copper mine being developed outside of White Sulphur Springs by a company called Tintina Resources. Every day when I drove home from work, I passed one particular billboard; it implied that Meagher County’s Smith River was in jeopardy of becoming polluted. Day after day, I grew increasingly frustrated thinking that the mine’s development could destroy such a treasured Montana waterway.
When Hope Good (publisher of Treasure State Lifestyles) returned from a trip to White Sulphur Springs, she mentioned that one thing she noticed while exploring the community was that nearly every business in town had a sign up in support of the Black Butte Copper Project. “Nearly all of them?” I thought. How could such a large portion of the community support a mine that would destroy their environment? Unless, it wouldn’t…
Hope explained that Tintina Resources had been conducting tours and presentations in (and outside of) the area, working to build understanding in exactly what it was they were doing. They also had all of their resources – studies, permits, plans, and reports – online for anyone who wanted to closely examine what they were up to. I found their transparency noble but that didn’t necessarily mean that what they were doing was right. I began perusing their library of documents to try and gain some understanding of the project and realized very quickly that this was beyond my comprehension. I’m not an engineer or a biochemist and a lot of the jargon was foreign to me. If I was going to gain any understanding about the project, I was going to need it explained to me by someone who could talk to the average Joe. Thankfully, Hope had such a contact – Nancy Schlepp.
Nancy is the Public Relations Director for Tintina Resources and one of her many jobs is walking people like me through the details of the Black Butte Copper Project. She breaks everything down into simple, yet concise terms to educate the public.
Hope and I arranged to meet with Nancy and traveled to Tintina Resources’ headquarters in White Sulphur Springs. As we waited for our appointment, we wandered the headquarters, looking at charts and graphs, mineral samples, and a 3D model of the mine. When it was time for our appointment, Nancy walked in and greeted us warmly, then escorted us into a large room to view a slideshow presentation.
Before getting started, Nancy explained to us some of the backstory on the mine. As the name implies, The Black Butte Copper Project plans to mine a copper deposit near Black Butte. What you might not know – I didn’t – was that this copper is one of the highest grade deposits being developed in the entire world.
This incredible discovery was made by Jerry Zieg, a geologist who began mapping the area while completing his masters at the University of Montana. After graduating, Jerry was hired by Cominco American Inc. to explore the area for zinc, with permission by both of the landowners that ranched cattle there. He explored for nine years and came upon the copper deposit, but at that time copper prices were low and there wasn’t much reason to study it further. Jerry completed his work and moved on to Alaska to work with Nova Gold.
Then in 2008 copper prices rose dramatically. Suddenly seventeen different companies were at the Black Butte ranchers’ doors, imploring that they be the ones to mine the copper there. But the ranchers turned them down; if anyone was going to mine that copper it was going to be Jerry Zieg. Why? Because he was a local, born and raised in White Sulphur Springs, and if anyone was going to make sure that the mining was done right, it was going to be someone who had a stake in the community.
Jerry was completely onboard. Nova Gold’s CEO helped form a new company called Tintina Resources (named after the Tintina gold belt in Alaska), so that Jerry and a team of scientists could study and develop a plan for the copper deposit. Such high grade copper would result in high profit margins, which in turn meant that Tintina Resources would have the means to implement world-class methods and technologies. With this in mind, Jerry and the team drafted a plan – one that would raise the bar for mining standards around the world.
But how? What makes this plan so different? Nancy used the slideshow to explain.
For starters, testing of the area has been extensive over the past five years to determine baseline data, build models, and calculate outcomes. For example, 42 groundwater monitoring stations and eleven surface water sites have been gathering baseline information regularly for four years, which is two years more than the industry average. Tintina Resources has been doing everything within their means to evaluate the long-term effects of their mine on the area. They’re taking every precaution to ensure that when all of the copper has been extracted and the mine closes down, the footprint left behind will be so minimal that future generations will see little evidence that it was ever there.
The main concern of the project’s opponents seems to be that the copper mine presents a risk for the Smith River. Images
are brought to mind of the 2015 Gold King Mine incident, where three million gallons of waste water and tailings spilled into the Animas River, creating an environmental disaster. But that outcome is scientifically impossible for the Black Butte Copper Project. Whereas the Gold King Mine’s entrances were below the water table, Tintina Resources’ mine will have all entrances located far above it. Think of it like poking a hole in a water bottle; if you poke a hole in the bottom, the pressure can send all of that water pouring out, but if you poke a hole at the top, nothing happens because gravity keeps the water pushed toward the bottom.
But what about water used in the mining process? Where does that contaminated water go and how can Tintina Resources be sure that it doesn’t end up in the Smith?
One thing that Nancy wanted to make clear to me upfront was that the Black Butte Copper Project is not on the Smith River. The mine will be built twelve miles away and the nearest waterway, Sheep Creek, is one mile from the mine and 19 stream miles from the Smith River. It’s separated from the site by Saw Mill Hill and it flows away from the Smith.
Moreover, Tintina Resources will use a process called reverse osmosis to treat all of its contaminated water. The treated water is clean enough to drink and will be released into an underground filtration system. There is zero discharge to surface waters. As for the contaminants, they are disposed of in the tailings.
One of the realities of mining is that in addition to mineral resources, tailings – materials left over after the process of separating the resource from uneconomic waste – are produced as well. Mines have a responsibility to dispose of these tailings in a way that will have minimal impact on the environment.
The Black Butte Copper Project has developed a plan that goes above and beyond industry standards to reclaim the area as quickly and fully as possible. It begins with the mining of rock and copper deposits which are sent through a crusher to break them into smaller pieces. These smaller pieces are sent to the onsite mill that grinds the copper and tailings to 30 microns, making them a consistency similar to powdered sugar. The finely ground rock is slurried into flotation vats, where the ore minerals are separated and then demoisturized. The copper concentrate is packaged in sealed containers (Tintina Resources is the first mining company in North America to use these) and the remainder of the ground rock, the tailings, are thickened and sent to the onsite paste plant.
Once the copper ore is extracted, reclamation will begin immediately with the back filling of the tunnels using cemented tailings, or “paste backfill.” This process leaves only 1-2% of the mine open at any time. Backfilling of the mine will use about 45% of the paste tailings during the life of the mine, and because the paste is impermeable to water, there is no chance of contaminants leaching into the ground. The remaining 55% of the paste tailings is moved to a double-lined cemented tailings facility. (Tintina Resources will use two 100 mil HDPE liners even though industry standard is one 60 mil liner.) Once the mine is closed, the tailings will be covered with another liner and welded to the lower double line, then covered with a layer of topsoil so that the area can return to grazing land for cattle again.
As Nancy went through the slideshow, she explained all of this with passion. In 2013 she resigned from her position as Executive Director of the Montana Taxpayers Association to join the project fulltime; so it was clear that she strongly believes in the project. Like Jerry, she had grown up in White Sulphur Springs and saw the development of the mine was breathing new life in the community. (The construction, mining, and reclamation of the project will generate hundreds of jobs and could increase Meagher County’s tax base up to four times what it is today.)
“You can feel the hope here,” said Nancy. “It’s almost tangible.”
While educating Montana citizens, Tintina Resources has also explained the Black Butte Copper Project to the state’s politicians. The company has talked to government officials – both democrats and republicans – and many on both sides of the aisle support the idea of the mine; however, there has been resistance from special interest groups.
Many of the groups have concerns about the environment and Nancy invites them to talk with her. She explains to them that the Black Butte Copper Project is the environmentally responsible thing to do, partly because copper plays such a big role in renewable energy. For instance, a wind farm windmill uses around four tons of copper and an electric car has about twice as much copper as a gas-powered one.
Nancy told me that many people warm up to the idea of the mine and even if they don’t side with Tintina Resources, they leave having gained more understanding of the issue; however, on a couple occasions, people have asked Nancy why we should risk mining in Montana when we can get our copper somewhere else and it’s a question that Nancy finds disturbing. The United States has the strictest mining regulations in the world (and there are even higher standards in Montana). Standing by as a third world country (with inferior technology and methods) destroys their environment in the pursuit of copper is wrong, especially if we can employ Americans to do it safely here at home.
Right now, Tintina Resources is planning to begin construction in 2018. As White Sulphur Springs prepares for an increase in population, the company is asking the community to think ahead, not just for the short term boom but long after the mine closes down.
I got to talk to Jerry Zieg about this. As an exploration geologist, he jokes that his career is predicated on failure; eventually copper will run out in the area. That’s why Tintina Resources is working to help the town build an identity outside of the Black Butte Copper Project so that when the mine is gone, there will be reasons for workers to stay and travelers to visit.
“We’re recharging the community,” said Jerry. “This gives them a chance to set a healthy path forward.”
Jerry’s excited that the Black Butte Copper Project can provide his hometown this opportunity and that Tintina Resources is setting a new standard in mining across the globe.
There’s a lot to the Black Butte Copper Project, certainly more than I can fit into this article. Admittedly, many of the details are missing and perhaps that raises some questions for you.
Tintina Resources is giving you everything you need to discover the answers to those questions. Explore the website. Go on a tour. See what it’s all about. You don’t have to support the Black Butte Copper Project. But you should educate yourself about it.