Idaho Conservation League and Idaho Rivers United have been critical of the Stibnite Gold Project for many reasons, and we’ll be looking for a few things when the new mine plan comes out.
“Never let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” This is one of the guiding principles for conservation groups like the Idaho Conservation League and Idaho Rivers United. Purism has its place, but if we want to get things done, we have to be willing to work with folks we may not always agree with but have found common ground with. Working with unlikely allies has led to permanent protections for some of Idaho’s most scenic mountains, canyons, and rivers, and has restored working landscapes and benefited local communities and the state as a whole.
What happened to the win-win proposal? Perpetua Resources made news for its recent efforts to clean up some areas at the site. While river restoration projects often call for heavy equipment, rerouting streams, transporting vegetation, or adding or removing material (all work that mining companies have significant expertise in), they never call for open pit cyanide leach mining. Restoration projects typically also have measurable results of improved water quality or stream function.
There are far too many examples of real harm caused by this type of mining to water quality and fisheries. While the restoration measures in the original Stibnite Gold mine plan sounded good, they didn’t compensate for the projected losses. The 2020 Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) found that there would actually be a net loss of habitat for Chinook Salmon and Bull Trout, even with mitigation. There was no win-win. The only question was just how badly the fish would lose.
Half of the new mining area would be in pristine, untouched areas. Perpetua Resources’ plan to restore the site involves burying a bull trout stream underneath 100 million tons of combined old and new toxic mine waste. If constructed, the proposed tailings buttress would be the second tallest dam in Idaho and the mine tailings would be deep enough to bury Boise’s tallest buildings.
The next issue is what is actually being mined. While antimony may be important, having a small percent of antimony in a gold project should not give the company a pass for a project that could end up doing immeasurable harm.
In its review of the original DEIS, the EPA (under the previous federal administration) wrote that it had ongoing “significant concern regarding potential impacts to water quality and aquatic resources.” Additionally, the EPA highlighted the risk for “long term contamination of groundwater of unknown extent” after the mine closes. These are not the type of comments that a well-engineered mining project normally receives, much less a restoration project.
If this mine were actually a clear win for the environment, why did the Forest Service take the highly unusual step of conducting a Supplemental DEIS instead of just issuing a final decision as they have for so many other mines? The answer is that there were so many problems in the previous versions of the mine plan that Perpetua had to modify its mine plan to avoid overt water contamination.
This Friday, the Forest Service will release the Supplemental DEIS. Perpetua has proposed a new, revised mine plan and we will be reviewing it closely to see how this latest version addresses the deficiencies identified in the previous versions. We encourage everyone – mine supporters, mine critics, and those undecided – to closely look at the Supplemental Draft EIS. Compare what Perpetua hopes to achieve with their restoration plan with the current and predicted conditions to water quality, water temperature, bull trout habitat, toxic metals in surface and groundwater, and risks from transporting hazardous materials.
The public deserves to know if there really is a net gain for the environment, what the likelihood of success is, and what the risks are. While short-term impacts might sometimes be acceptable if there are long-term gains, mine pollution all too often plays the long game.
It is also worth having some healthy skepticism about the stated predictions, as environmental analyses tend to be overly optimistic. None of the environmental analyses for modern, state-of-the-art gold mines in the U.S. predicted adverse effects to water quality, yet over 70% of these mines ended up polluting surface or groundwater with cyanide, diesel fuel, or other contaminants.
Can both mining and restoration be accomplished at Stibnite? We always look for win-win proposals, but so far we have only seen restoration proposed where it does not substantially interfere with maximized mining operations – mining operations that place the South Fork Salmon headwaters at greater risk than they are today. We are waiting to see if Perpetua can come up with a plan that advances the actual restoration needs on the site without eventually undermining them. “Restore the Site” is a fantastic slogan, but the mine plan needs to live up to this promise. Anything short of that should not be permitted in this special place.
John Robison, Idaho Conservation League
Nick Kunath, Idaho Rivers United