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Judge says Montana officials unlawfully approved copper mine

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BILLINGS – State environmental officials unlawfully approved a large copper mine in central Montana despite worries that mining waste would pollute a river that’s popular among boaters, a state judge ruled.

Officials with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality failed to conduct an adequate review of the proposed Black Butte mine north of White Sulphur Springs, Judge Katherine Bidegaray said in Friday’s ruling.

Work began last year on the mine along a tributary of the Smith River, a waterway so popular among boaters that the state holds an annual lottery to decide who can float down it.

The underground mine sponsored by Vancouver-based Sandfire Resources is on private land and would extract 15.3 million tons of copper-laden rock and waste over 15 years—roughly 440 tons a day.

Environmentalists had sued over potential pollution from the mine and asked Bidegaray to reconsider its permit.

Bidegaray’s ruling leaves that permit in place for now. She asked the two sides in the case to submit legal briefs within 45 days to address what should happen next.

State officials said the mine permit includes requirements that will protect the Smith River. They plan to appeal the ruling, Department of Environmental Quality Director Chris Dorrington said.

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