First clean up, then talk more mining

  • Jeff Welsch

 

Trust us, the industry giants keep saying as they try to assure us they can mine the earth without harming it. Trust us, for we have the best technology now and have learned from our mistakes. Trust us, for we have every possible safeguard in place for every event that could go terribly wrong.

Trust us, and when we're done you'll barely know we were here. And so we trust.

We trusted Massey Energy when it insisted it was safely mining for coal in the hills of West Virginia. Now 29 miners are dead after an explosion April 5 at the company's Upper Big Branch Mine.

We trusted British Petroleum when it promised to conduct environmentally sensitive drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico and assured us that an accident imperiling the waters and beaches of the Gulf Coast was "virtually impossible." Now 11 workers are dead and millions of gallons of oil are endangering shorelines, wildlife and livelihoods from Louisiana to North Carolina after an April 20 explosion.

We are also asked to trust the extractive behemoths Simplot, Monsanto and Agrium when they tell us they can expand their mountaintop, phosphate-mining footprints in southeast Idaho without harming the Greater Yellowstone environment, or us.

Simplot wants to take the unprecedented step of purchasing more than 1,100 acres of U.S. Forest Service lands for a toxic-waste impoundment to accompany its new Dairy Syncline mine near Soda Springs. Monsanto is eager to build a mine almost literally on the banks of the Blackfoot River, already fouled by deadly selenium runoff. Agrium, a Canadian company whose advertisement for a new mine manager ironically touts southeast Idaho's "beautiful mountains" and "great" outdoor recreation opportunities, is set to level some of those beautiful mountains at a new mine site near the Blackfoot's headwaters.

Of course, the mining companies might argue that this is different from the coal mining and oil drilling scenarios, and they'd be right: Unlike the phosphate folks, Massey Energy and British Petroleum are actually attempting to clean up their messes. Meanwhile, southeast Idaho's giant phosphate scar is still fraught with 17 federal Superfund sites, reflecting the ongoing selenium contamination responsible for killing at least six horses, 18 head of cattle, hundreds of sheep and untold wild game and fish. And just to the west, the Don ore-processing plant in Pocatello remains a Superfund site because of its mountain-sized slag pile not far from the Portneuf River.

All have been awaiting cleanup, some for decades. Oh, and in case you missed it, Agrium wants We The People to pay for the cleanup at two of their Superfund sites. What of a potential catastrophic event similar to the tragedies in West Virginia and in the Gulf? While the loss of livestock, wildlife and outdoor recreation due to selenium pollution might seem catastrophic enough to some, it's true that the phosphate mining industry in southeast Idaho has never had a calamity on the level of Massey and BP.

Trust us, they would say, that couldn't happen here.

Then again, that's what agriculture officials near Los Banos, Calif., were saying in the early 1980s at California's Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge. But the refuge made national headlines when thousands of migrating wildfowl were found dead, dying or grotesquely deformed by ingesting toxic levels of selenium from runoff.

Today, the phosphate mining industry wants us to believe it can remove mountaintops and scar large swaths of Greater Yellowstone without harming its lands, waters, wildlife or people. Trust us, they say: We have the technology. We have learned from our mistakes. We are putting every conceivable safeguard in place to ensure environmentally sensitive mining.

We have heard it all before, but still we want to believe. So, to Simplot, Monsanto and Agrium, I say: You want to build our trust? Use some of the tens of millions of dollars you're spending on mine development to clean up your existing messes. Before expanding your footprint, demonstrate you can mine at your current sites without poisoning the lands, waters and wildlife. Then show us you can put these landscapes back together in some reasonable facsimile of the way you found them.

If you don't, it seems only a matter of time before a catastrophe on the order of Kesterson, Massey or British Petroleum befalls your industry. If you do undertake reclamation, then -- and only then -- will we begin to trust that you can mine new parts of the southeast Idaho earth without continuing to harm it.

Jeff Welsch is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the communications director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in Bozeman, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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