Festering Idaho mine to be cleaned; others remain

  • Sign - Blackbird Creek is unsafe for drinking water

    Lynne Stone

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 creeks.

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 are planned.

"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."

Tracing 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.

The 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 more.

"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 before."

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?"

The 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.

About 20,000 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.

"The scary 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 will."

To back up its commitment, Beartrack has posted a $2 million bond on the project.

If a 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.

"It's 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 (208/334-1470).

The writer works out of Boise, Idaho.

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