Living in Idaho, we know that water is life. From the alpine lake you camp next to, the creek you hike along, the river you float on and fish in, the water you irrigate your garden with, and the cool glass of ice water you drink on a summer day, we know the value of clean water.

But we also know we cannot take clean water for granted. One of the biggest risks to clean water comes from improperly managed mining activities. For over 150 years, mining has been given preferential treatment on public lands thanks to the overly generous language of the General Mining Law of 1872. Mining is the number one toxic polluter in the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And while this is a national policy issue, there are countless examples throughout Idaho of how improper mining activities can lead to serious water quality contamination—like with the Triumph mine site near Sun Valley or the defunct Atlanta Gold mine in the headwaters of the Boise River. Chances are that there is a mining claim somewhere upstream of you and the places you care about.

In recent years, we have seen a surge in mineral exploration proposals across the state proposing to drill for gold, silver, cobalt, and other valuable metals. As part of ICL’s role as a watchdog for public lands, we review and comment on nearly every mineral exploration project proposed on public lands. However, in recent years as the number of proposals has escalated, we have noticed a concerning trend of exploration projects being approved by the Forest Service without sufficient baseline water quality data or ongoing water quality monitoring—both of which are essential project components to ensure that those projects do not lead to contamination of Idaho’s precious waterways.

The need for water quality data and monitoring

While the drilling activities associated with mineral exploration are not as impactful to the environment as a full-blown mine project, they still can cause notable impacts to both surface and groundwater. By the nature of these proposals, mining projects target areas of mineralization, which naturally can have elevated concentrations of various metals (including toxic metals such as arsenic, lead, and mercury) in surrounding surface water and groundwater. Mining-related activities can then further mobilize available metals into surface water and groundwater, elevating metal concentrations further in the soil and water. Thus, it is crucial to know the pre-project baseline conditions (i.e. the water quality before drilling begins) and the during/post-project conditions (i.e. the water quality during/after the drilling occurs) in order to determine whether the exploration activities are impacting the water (as opposed to natural factors) and need to be adjusted or mitigated. Otherwise, if the Forest Service finds high levels of arsenic coming from spring or seep next to a drilling operation, a mining company could just claim that the water has always naturally elevated arsenic levels and they have nothing to do with it (thus avoiding any liability and expensive cleanup costs), leaving the Forest Service (and the public who relies on that water) with the cleanup bill and/or contaminated water supplies.

Corral Creek near Kilgore. Tony Huegel photo.

Although exploration drilling projects typically include a set of requirements to prevent water quality contamination, the only definitive way to protect water quality is through robust monitoring of actual water quality data. Baseline water quality data and ongoing monitoring are critical to ensure that water resources on our public lands are not being degraded by mining activities and public health is not at risk.

In recent years, the Forest Service has approved a number of mineral exploration projects that lacked sufficient water quality data and/or monitoring (from our perspective). All of these projects were significant in scope (90+ bulldozed pads for drilling rigs, each 60’x15’) and located near rivers and streams with potential impacts to important fish species. For some projects, like the Breccia Beta Project along Panther Creek in the Salmon-Challis National Forest, ICL was able to negotiate a resolution that added regular water quality monitoring across the project area. For other projects, like the Kilgore Exploration Project on the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, ICL has had to take the Forest Service to federal court to resolve these issues, resulting in more detailed environmental analysis and additional monitoring. 

What’s next?

This issue is bigger than a single national forest; we will continue advocating to the Forest Service at both a regional and national level for better guidance on the level of water quality monitoring and baseline data collection to include for mineral exploration projects. Proactive water quality monitoring demonstrates a commitment to responsible and sustainable mining practices and can help build trust between mining companies and local communities. The good news is that responsible mining companies interested in doing business on your public lands already know to start baseline water monitoring before they propose drilling.

Water pollution at the Triumph Mine site.

Pollution from improper mining activities can last for decades and even centuries. It is far easier to keep clean water clean rather than to clean it up once it is polluted. We must have the necessary data and monitoring to identify when there is a problem, stop contamination before it’s too late, and hold polluting mining companies accountable.

Through the support of all of our members across the state, as well as generous funding from the True North Foundation, ICL is able to serve as a watchdog for mining activities across the state to ensure that our waters stay clean, ecosystems stay healthy and we have safe water to drink. 

Concerned about future mining-related water quality issues and looking for an opportunity to take action? Sign up for updates on CuMo Exploration Project. Located at the headwaters of the Boise River, this project could lead to the development of one of the largest open-pit mines in the world. We’ll notify you of your chance to speak up on behalf of the Boise River and all who count on it for clean water!

Plus, stay updated on issues impacting Idaho’s public lands by signing up for ICL Public Lands Campaign email udpates.