By M. Johnston

Jerry Zieg, Vice President of Exploration for Tintina Resources, cuts an interesting figure full of all kinds of contradictions that the Black Butte Copper project has come to signify. One part avid protector of the environment and one part ambitious geologic visionary, he has every intention of seeing this modern mining project brought to fruition as a clear statement of how responsible development of our natural resources does not mean we will be saddled with the issues of poor mining practices of 50 and even 100 years ago.

Jerry practically drips with enthusiasm for his work and love of landscape. What makes his story, and the story of the Black Butte Copper Project, even more unlikely is the fact that he intends to make his hometown of White Sulphur Springs, Montana – a charming, yet practically undiscovered agricultural town in central Montana – the stage where “doing it right from the beginning” means that the Black Butte Project will be a showcase for 21st Century mining practices – modern mining technology at its best.

There are times when a few people have the potential to change the game in an industry in a way never before imagined. The Black Butte Copper Project is to mining what the cell phone was to the telephone industry – an ambitious project whose very intention is to take an industry by leaps and bounds into the future. The implications are staggering, not only for the economic impact in a county that puts per-capita income ranking 53rd out of 56 Montana counties (in a state which itself ranks 38th out of the 50), but most importantly in the possibility that extraction standards will far exceed anything seen in Montana mining history – essentially throwing the door wide open for the public to see equal commitment to environmental protection while providing economic opportunity. That’s a possibility we should all feel enthusiastic about.

While the proposed underground mine is designed to provide economic opportunity to central Montana while fully protecting the local watershed, it is often difficult for those outside the engineering and geologic communities to wrap their minds around the technology and methods executed to make this possible. Make no mistake, if you take the time to experience one of Tintina’s educational tours offered every month you’ll quickly realize the underground Black Butte Copper Project is not your grandpa’s open pit mine.

It is designed with all openings and entry points to the underground mine located well above the water table to prevent water from ever leaving. Surface irrigation rights have been leased for instream flow to ensure there is no change to the water levels in Sheep Creek and a reverse osmosis water treatment plant will treat water on-site for the project’s cradle to grave lifespan. At any given time, only a small percentage of the mine will be open; this backfill policy ensures that no large open spaces will be left underground and there will be no subsidence from the surface. Furthermore, mill tailings that are not returned underground will be mixed with cement and placed in an innovative double-lined facility, eventually making it possible for the site to return to grazing quality ground with no treatment of water in perpetuity necessary.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to write pages about parts per billion and Montana’s improved environmental rules and regulations, and how they’ll make certain the Black Butte Copper Project and Montana’s resources can co-exist. Indeed, Montanans that have flocked to the educational Tintina tours are often shocked to learn that the Treasure State is on the cutting edge of mining standards, with industry required to ensure all water flowing through mine sites be as clean or cleaner when it is returned to the natural water system as it was before mining. But, Montanans would expect the most stringent environmental protections, wouldn’t they? Water, whether for recreation or agriculture, is one of the most essential ingredients that drives the Montana economy and in a state with a tumultuous relationship with mining of the past, it’s good to know lessons have been learned and stringent government laws and high industry expectations are on the same side as public anticipations.

The reality of an outdated “not in my backyard” philosophy is that the demand for copper still exists; it doesn’t disappear into a vacuous space in the world. When first world countries import copper and other raw materials from an international market, the environment is at risk of unnecessary damage at the hands of poorer quality environmental standards.

And copper, a resource necessary for the renewable energy and green technologies coming on to the world market, will continue to be extracted to feed that demand. The question then, from a sustainability standpoint, is where and under which nation’s or state’s particular standards of stewardship? It appears the answer is right in Jerry Zieg’s backyard where the assurance of Montana’s gold-standard environmental guidelines are already in place.

As the Black Butte Copper Project prepares to enter into the Environmental Impact Study (EIS) phase, their educational tours continue to draw Montanans and there is excitement among White Sulphur Springs’ residents for the possibility of not only jobs, but the much needed infrastructure upgrades expected to come to the county. The willingness to improve and invest in current local businesses is visible already. Zieg expects that commitment to increase as the project moves forward. White Sulphur, like many rural communities across the state, had been suffering from many of the effects of dwindling population and stagnant economies in recent decades. “It’s an opportunity for the community to reinvent itself for a better future,” Zieg states when asked about what the project means to him personally, adding, “It’s not the whole solution, but my hope is it will be a springboard for the future.”

Tours of the Black Butte Project are available the 1st of every month starting at the Tintina Resources office in White Sulphur Springs. Reserve a spot by calling (406) 547-3346.

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