Tucked up a beautiful river valley near the East Fork of the Big Wood River lies a dirty little secret – an old silver and lead mine that continues to discharge polluted water with high levels of toxic metals. While the state of Idaho has completed some pollution prevention measures and cleanup at the Triumph Mine site, a contaminated waste rock pile and problematic tunnel remain and continue to pollute the East Fork of the Big Wood River, nearby wetlands, and potentially waters further downstream. 

It is encouraging to have cleanup efforts underway, but there’s a catch: Idaho’s taxpayers are responsible for shouldering the millions of dollars of annual costs required to prevent an even larger environmental catastrophe — not the mining company.

In the 1990s, because of high levels of contamination and risks to health and the environment, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed cleaning up the Triumph Mine site under the Superfund program. Instead of supporting Superfund cleanup, the State convinced the EPA to let it work with the mining companies. But because of bankruptcy, the mining companies are no longer involved at the site so the State and Idaho taxpayers remain responsible for managing and cleaning it up.

The cost of these efforts? Tens of millions of your dollars to date, and nearly $3 million in just this coming fiscal year alone, according to the Department of Environmental Quality’s FY2022 proposed budget

Ongoing remedial actions by the State to prevent illegal pollution discharges to the East Fork under a 2018 settlement agreement that ICL helped broker are being further complicated by a mine tunnel system beset with major structural issues. An inspection in June 2018 found a collapsed tunnel wall 135 feet from the entrance, causing mine-contaminated water to pool and contaminants to potentially flow about 500 feet to the East Fork of the Big Wood River. Even more worrisome, last spring, an inspection of the tunnel after the March 31 earthquake near Stanley found that an additional, larger collapse had occurred.

These unforeseen developments have shown that, without additional actions, the mine tunnel is at risk of further, potentially disastrous, collapses. If this happens, impounded mine water may build up and release contaminants through springs in the surrounding area, or even worse, in a catastrophic blowout. The total cost of repairing the tunnel/plug system alone is estimated to cost no less than $2.7 million dollars when all is said and done, only some of which is being allocated this coming fiscal year.

Triumph is unfortunately one of Idaho’s many examples for how mining can go very, very wrong and leave the taxpayers holding the bag. For those keeping score at home, that’s nearly $3 million of taxpayer money being spent in just one year on Triumph remediation efforts (if approved), not to mention the millions of dollars that have already been spent at the site (and will need to continue to be spent in the coming years). 

Mining companies often do not have sufficient money set aside for cleanup and reclamation (known as bonding) to restore the landscape when mining is complete. When these companies go bankrupt but cleanup remains, the pollution is either never addressed or it is done at the expense of Idaho and Idahoans. Something to think about with massive projects like Stibnite that would make the Triumph situation seem like a drop in the bucket by comparison.

ICL will continue to be vigilant in ensuring mining cleanup and pollution prevention measures so water quality is protected in the East Fork, and will continue to advocate for increased and permanent bonding authority for the State of Idaho.