Idaho’s Silver Valley in North Idaho stretches approximately 40 miles from the Idaho-Montana border at Lookout Pass to just east of the town of Coeur d’Alene. The Panhandle National Forest surrounds the Valley while the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene (SFCdA) River flows through it before emptying into Lake Coeur d’Alene. Together the forest and the river make the Silver Valley a true natural gem. However, the past and current threats from historic and ongoing mining in the Silver Valley create an uncertain future. 

Trouble at the Galena Mine 

Earlier this summer, ICL shared information about one particular threat: the Galena Mine Complex and its ongoing arsenic water pollution to the SFCdA River. The Galena Mine Complex (owned and operated by US Silver) is a silver, lead, and copper mine located just west of Wallace, Idaho, and adjacent to the River. Dating back to the spring of 2022, the mine has violated arsenic or lead wastewater limits nearly every month, and by as high as 186% of allowable limits. In March of this year, the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) filed a civil complaint against US Silver for many of these violations. In May, DEQ and US Silver reached a tentative settlement in the complaint against them. The settlement would include a $222,320 fine, but lacked other necessary standards to hold the company accountable and make steps toward improving – raising concern that the settlement would effectively grant the US Silver a free pass to continue this pollution. ICL submitted extensive public comments on the draft version of the settlement, raising significant concerns. Among them were the long length of the proposed wastewater treatment upgrade schedule, a failure to require interim pollution reduction measures, and a failure to include interim arsenic wastewater limits. 

Our work and comments paid off. Earlier this month, DEQ and the US Silver agreed to a final settlement. In a big win for water quality, DEQ was convinced to include an interim arsenic pollution limit in a final settlement agreement with US Silver. This should help set a strong precedent that any future wastewater violation settlements at other facilities must also include interim limits. However, the US Silver still won’t be required to comply with the standard and more stringent arsenic pollution limits until 2031, and has limited incentive to reduce arsenic pollution in the short term. Given the boom-and-bust nature of mining and its tendency to create and then abandon long-term pollution issues, there’s real concern the Galena Mine could harm the (SFCdA) River for decades to come. 

Some Help Is On The Way

After years of litigation, data collection, and negotiations, new arsenic water quality standards in Idaho were finalized by DEQ earlier this summer. This water quality standard essentially sets the limit for the amount of arsenic that can exist in Idaho’s water bodies and aquatic life and by extension, the amount of arsenic that polluters are allowed to discharge. Since 2010, that limit has been set at 10 micrograms per liter (ug/L). Now, it is generally set at 4.3 ug/L. Eventually, the Galena Mine and several other mines in the Silver Valley will have to comply with the new arsenic standard as their wastewater discharge permits are up for renewal. However, it is possible these other mines will also be given long timetables until they have to comply with the updated arsenic standards. ICL reviews every wastewater discharge permit issued by DEQ and keeps a watchful eye on violations and will continue to do so for the Galena Mine and other mines in the Silver Valley. 

What Can Be Done

To help protect North Idaho’s waters, consider becoming an ICL member and making a contribution to support ICL’s North Idaho Lakes Advocacy program, which focuses on protecting the waters of Idaho’s panhandle from degradation, pollution, and poor land use management. You can also take action for clean water in North Idaho by speaking up for the Kootenai River from selenium pollution.  If you have any specific questions or comments on the Galena Mine or arsenic water pollution, you can contact ICL’s Conservation Associate Will Tiedemann.

For the love of clean water, join ICL today!