Forest Service weighs in on mine proposal

FILE - This Sept. 19, 2018, file photo shows the Yellow Pine Pit open-pit gold mine in the Stibnite Mining District in central Idaho, where a company hopes to start mining again. The U.S. government has released a draft environmental report on the potential effects of three open-pit gold mines in central Idaho proposed by a Canadian company. The U.S. Forest Service will take comments for 60 days on the documents released Friday, Aug. 14, 2020, involving British Columbia-based Midas Gold's plan that includes restoration work in the already heavily-mined area. (Riley Bunch/The Idaho Press-Tribune via AP, File)

The U.S. Forest Service released a draft analysis of the possible impacts of reopening and expanding a 100-year-old, open pit gold and antimony mine in the headwaters of the South Fork Salmon River.

Midas Gold Corp., a British Columbia, Canada company with an Idaho affiliate, is proposing to reopen, expand and eventually restore the historic Stibnite Mining District east of McCall and in the shadow of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area. The company estimates it can recover as much as 4 million to 5 million ounces of gold, 6 million to 7 million ounces of silver, and 100 million to 200 million pounds of antimony. The mine would employ as many as 500 people and create other jobs in the region during its proposed 20-year lifespan.

“We have identified an opportunity to responsibly redevelop and restore a brownfields site that was essentially abandoned after more than a century of mining activity. In the process, we will invest over a billion dollars in Idaho and bring hundreds of family-wage jobs to our rural communities,” said Laurel Sayer, CEO of Midas Gold Idaho.

But according to critics, which include the Nez Perce Tribe, the mine and it’s three open pits would threaten some of Idaho’s most important wild salmon and steelhead spawning habitat and carry other environmental baggage as well. As much as 17 miles of new roads could be built across parts of three inventoried roadless areas under the proposal. The roads would eventually be obliterated.

The Payette National Forest, which oversees much of the land where the mining would occur, is taking public comments for the next 60 days on the draft environmental impact statement. The document that was released Friday is about 6,000 pages long and includes several alternatives.

Mining at Stibnite dates back to at least the 1930s, and the site was active during World War II, before modern environmental standards were adopted. Other mining companies left behind a legacy of toxic pollution and damage which includes an open pit that the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon River flows into. Threatened chinook salmon, steelhead and bull trout are not able pass above the pit to access spawning grounds.

Midas Gold and Midas Gold Idaho, which acquired mining rights to the property about a decade ago, are proposing to remine old tailings piles and open pits there and to mine areas that have not previously been disturbed. The company says it will use some of the profits to mitigate problems left by previous mining and that it will ultimately leave the site in better condition.

For example, the company proposes to improve fish habitat by diverting the river the East Fork of the South Fork Salmon River around the Yellow Pine Pit and through a tunnel during the work that fish could use to reach upstream spawning habitat for the first time in 80 years. When mining concludes, the Yellow Pine Pit would be largely filled in, the tunnel deactivated and the river restored to a natural gradient. Two other open pits would remain at the site and become lakes hundreds of feet deep after mining concludes.

The company is also proposing to fix sedimentation problems and remove tailings and other waste that contribute to serious water quality problems there.

But people like John Robison of the Idaho Conservation League say the proposed mining of areas not previously disturbed and the associated pollution would swamp any restoration of old problems.

“Trying to more safely store some toxic mining material by removing it is one thing, but they are placing it in a pristine draw and adding several million tons of toxic mining waste they are generating. It really undermines their restoration pitch,” he said. “At the end of the day, this is really an old school, open pit cyanide vat leach mining project in an extremely sensitive location.”

Because of the length and complexity of the draft document, the Idaho Conservation League is asking that the public comment period be extended to 120 days.

The Nez Perce Tribe is opposed to the project and says the mine threatens important salmon and steelhead habitat downstream of the mine. The tribe is suing the company under the Clean Water Act, claiming it is discharging water polluted with arsenic, cyanide, mercury and other heavy metals without the proper federal permits. The company doesn’t dispute the pollution, but said it has been occurring for decades and long before it acquired the property, and that some of those problems will be fixed if its proposal is approved.

The tribe has reserved rights, enumerated in its 1855 Treaty with the federal government, to harvest fish in the area. It also spends about $2.8 million per year in fish restoration activities in the South Fork of the Salmon River drainage, and its members continue to fish there.

“The Nez Perce Tribe is resolute in opposing the proposed Stibnite Mine Project,” said Shannon F. Wheeler, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe Executive Committe. “The Tribe will perform a thorough review of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, submit comments, and continue to consult with the Forest Service and other federal agencies reviewing the Project. The Tribe expects the United States to uphold its treaty obligations and reject this destructive gold mining proposal because it will clearly result in significant, enduring, and irreparable harm to the Tribe’s treaty rights and resources.”

The draft EIS can be viewed at https://bit.ly/33YL3XI.

Barker may be contacted at ebarker@lmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.

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