SALMON, Idaho - Four mining companies have agreed to pay the $50 million cost of cleaning up toxic runoff from a defunct copper and cobalt mine.
The complex deal between
the companies, three federal agencies and the state of Idaho,
addresses acid runoff at the Blackbird Mine, about 21 miles west of
here. Since the early 1900s, nearly 10 billion pounds of waste rock
has been piled up at the mine. In the late 1960s and early 1970s,
runoff flowing out of the waste rock became so acidic that it
killed several thousand salmon in Panther Creek. Experts say that
at least five years of cleanup work will be required before fish
can again survive in Blackbird and Panther
Even as environmentalists praised the
pact, it indicates the ongoing risks of mining in Salmon River
country. Dozens of mines, defunct and operational, sit against
wilderness boundaries in the headwaters of the drainage; more mines
"I find it ironic that there's so
much focus on nuclear waste in Idaho when we're leaving millions of
tons of mine tailings perched above the Salmon River," says Lynne
Stone of Ketchum, on the staff of Boulder-White Clouds Council, a
group that bird-dogs mines in the region. The tailings problem, she
says, "is going to be there forever."
responsibility for the Blackbird Mine - which includes miles of
trenches and tunnels - has been difficult. The mine changed hands
several times before federal and state reclamation laws took
effect. Its current owners, Noranda and Hanna, will share the
cleanup cost with two previous owners.
cleanup will divert runoff away from the creeks, fill trenches and
otherwise reclaim the site. Environmental agencies will oversee the
work, but the mine will be kept off the Superfund list, which is
seen as a plus. In the typical Superfund cleanup, the government is
more intensively involved, and there is more red tape and more
chance for litigation; everything takes longer and costs
"This is a very innovative agreement
between the government and private entities to do something
together," says Bruce Smith, a Boise attorney who works for
Noranda. "To my knowledge, you've never seen that in Superfund
The mining companies will pay Idaho
Fish and Game to raise salmon and trout that will be reintroduced
in Panther Creek by 2005, assuming that the cleanup makes the creek
hospitable by then. Mining companies face damages of $25,000 per
month if they do not meet that timetable. Even if they do, Salmon
National Forest fish biologist Bruce Smith (no relation to the
attorney) says there may not be any chinook salmon left by then to
plant in the creek.
Chinook have been listed as
an endangered species since 1991; the species continues to decline.
"Even if we're going to have a recovery program," Smith says, "I
wonder where we're going to find the fish?"
acid runoff at Blackbird shows what could happen at other mines in
the drainage, including the Thompson Creek open-pit molybdenum mine
near Challis, Stone says. There has been a recent toxic leak at one
mine: In late April, just as the Blackbird deal was coming
together, U.S. Forest Service officials discovered a cyanide leak
at an old gold-processing facility at the Preacher's Cove site near
the Yankee Fork of the Salmon.
gallons of cyanide from a plastic-lined pond apparently trickled
into ground water, about 650 feet from the river. Suspecting
vandalism, the owner of the processing plant has offered a $10,000
reward for tips about who did it. Stone has a different suspicion:
that the liner was sliced by ice.
thing about mining is, they (mine companies) do things today, and
we live with the consequences forever," says Mike Liter, a fish
biologist for Idaho Fish and Game. "The potential for another
Blackbird is always there."
Other open-pit gold
mines may open soon in the Salmon River country. At least 350 new
jobs will be created by mining projects, according to industry
sources, providing an influx of $12 million in payroll to Custer
and Lemhi counties.
John Lawson, an environmental
consultant for FMC Beartrack, a new open-pit gold mine near Salmon,
says his company is trying to anticipate and safeguard against acid
runoff or cyanide leaks.
"There's a whole bunch
of checks and balances that go into a project today that weren't
even contemplated in the 1940s, "50s or "60s, when the Blackbird
Mine was in operation," Lawson says. "Acid-rock drainage is a
concern to everybody. If it occurs, it's detected early. We can
contain things inside our project boundary, always have and always
To back up its commitment, Beartrack has
posted a $2 million bond on the project.
mine-acid catastrophe does occur in the Salmon River Basin, it
could hurt not only the fisheries, but also a multimillion-dollar
tourism industry. More than 16,000 whitewater boaters float the
main Salmon and Middle Fork Salmon every summer, many of them with
outfitters who provide jobs and income to Lemhi County.
At Blackbird, the state of Idaho filed a lawsuit
against the Hanna mining company in 1983 to force a cleanup and
halt the acid runoff. The mine was proposed as a Superfund site in
1993, but never officially made it onto the list because it ranked
low on the scale of national priorities, EPA officials say.
Blackbird's long history of operation and the
number of companies involved contributed to the difficulty of a
cleanup. Even U.S. Bureau of Mines workers bulldozed trenches
around the mine during World War II, searching for cobalt, a
strategic mineral for aircraft engines.
very complex," says Rob Metka, Noranda vice president in Montreal.
"You're trying to bring people back into the process in cases where
a predecessor company is five times removed and its name has
changed three times, and you tell them that they're responsible for
what the company did back then. Quite naturally, the reaction is,
"That can't be." "
However, through public
records, aerial photographs and other means, the companies
determined where responsibility lay. How the cost of cleanup will
be split up among the companies will probably never be made public,
attorney Smith says.
"There's no other country on
earth that requires a current owner of a mine site to be
responsible for mediating past practices," Metka says. "We still
don't think it's fair."
For more information
contact the EPA, 1435 N. Orchard, Boise, ID 83706
The writer works out
of Boise, Idaho.