Images of the mine spill on Animas River in Colorado stunned  people across the West. A once-vibrant, clear blue river was  transformed to a toxic orange ribbon. The effects of the spill  extended far downriver and affected Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. In  this unfortunate incident, federal cleanup efforts inadvertently  triggered the flood of mine waste that had been building up in  mine tunnels for years.

Could something like this happen in Idaho? Yes, like the Animas River, the Boise River provides water for  drinking, irrigation, fish and wildlife. It provides remarkable  recreation opportunities for floaters, fishermen, swimmers and even  surfers. The Boise River is the heartbeat of our community.

As on  the Animas River, historic mining in the Boise River headwaters left a  maze of mine tunnels that continue to bleed mine waste. Twenty years  ago, the Forest Service gave a mining company permission to reopen mine  shafts near Atlanta. Exploration activities altered the groundwater flow  and worsened the historic arsenic discharge.

Following legal action by  the Idaho Conservation League and Advocates for the West, the Atlanta  Gold mining company installed a water-treatment facility. The good news  is that the treatment plant is removing the arsenic. The bad news is  that the Forest Service’s proposed closure plan would allow the Canadian  mining company to simply plug the tunnel with a cement bulkhead,  dismantle the water treatment facility and walk away.

We know from  the accident on the Animas what could happen next. Contaminated water  will likely fill up the tunnels until it spills out someplace else and  again finds its way into the headwaters. Or worse, an underground  structure could fail and release a wave of toxic water downstream.

There  is still time to prevent this potentially devastating spill from  happening. The Forest Service and mining company need to work with the  downstream community to develop a long-term plan that ensures toxic  floodwaters won’t build up in the mountain and that the discharge will  continue to meet water quality standards into the future.

To  prevent such spills from happening in other places in Idaho, we must  modernize the Mining Law of 1872. Mining is now ordained as the  highest and best use of our public lands. In fact, the Forest Service  cannot deny a mining permit, only put conditions on it. The  Forest Service is currently in the process of authorizing drilling for  the CuMo Project (near Grimes Creek, also in the headwaters of the Boise  River), the Golden Meadows Project (underneath the riverbed of the East  Fork South Fork Salmon River), and the Golden Hand Project in the Frank  Church River of No Return (near Big Creek, a tributary to the Middle  Fork of the Salmon River).

The Hard Rock Mining Reform and  Reclamation Act of 2015 (HR 963) would level the playing field and  ensure that local communities have a say in whether mines should be  permitted in the headwaters of these amazing rivers. It would also  provide a dedicated funding source to help address the estimated 500,000  abandoned mines that plague the West.

Speak up for the  Boise River! First, sign up for email updates and we’ll keep you informed.  Second, join me for a special presentation about the Boise River at  Boise Brewing, 521 W Broad St, 5:30 pm, Thursday, Sept 17. It  is far better to keep a river clean than to try to clean it up after it  has been contaminated with heavy metals. Just ask anyone along the  Animas.