A leaky mine must get in line


When the Grouse Creek Mine opened in 1995, it was hailed as an example of mining done in harmony with the environment. But the central Idaho gold mine closed in 1997 because it wasn't making enough money, and its 500 million-gallon tailings pond leaks and has been contaminating streams with cyanide. Now federal and state officials say the pond must be drained.

Hecla Mining Co. plans to treat the pond, located at the headwaters of the Salmon River, in order to remove cyanide, mercury, cadmium, silver and copper. The mining company will then discharge the wastewater into a so-called mixing zone, where officials say it will be diluted by water in the river.

According to the Department of Environmental Quality and the mining company, the water flowing downriver from the mixing zone will be clean enough for wildlife and human consumption.

"We know that it can be safely done," says Viki Veltkamp of Hecla Mining Co.

While activists favor draining the toxic lake, they worry the mining company won't be able to remove all of the contaminants and attain a safe water-quality standard. Endangered chinook salmon and bull trout could be harmed, they fear. Mining watchdog Tom Blanchard of the environmental group Boulder-White Clouds Council says he's seen similar projects fail in the past.

"This mine was supposed to be state-of-the-art," says Blanchard. "I'd like to see a state-of-the-art solution."

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Greg Stahl

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