Nestled above the East Fork of the Big Wood River near Sun Valley 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 waters further downstream. The State continues to evaluate alternatives to address the water quality at Triumph, but no long-term solutions have yet been identified.

The state is now proposing to spend an additional ~$7.45 million in the next fiscal year to address this toxic legacy. ICL supports this funding request but believes it should have been shouldered by the corporations that caused the mess in the first place.

What happened?

In the 1990s, high levels of contamination and risks to health and the environment led the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to propose cleanup of 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 company that owned the site at that time, ASARCO. Shortly after, ASARCO went bankrupt, leaving Idaho taxpayers responsible for managing and cleaning up the site.

The cost of these efforts? Tens of millions of your dollars to date, with a whole lot more on the way, according to the Governor’s FY2023 proposed budget. This budget requests a total of $7.452 million for continued Triumph remediation efforts, split between the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality ($1.452 million in FY23) and the Idaho Department of Lands ($6 million in FY23). It is highly likely that many more millions of dollars will be required in future years to continue this cleanup effort.

Under a 2018 settlement agreement with ICL, the State agreed to continue remedial actions to curtail illegal pollution discharges to the East Fork. Those efforts have been further complicated by a mine tunnel system beset with major structural issues. An inspection in June 2018 found that a collapsed tunnel wall was causing mine-contaminated water to pool, potentially allowing contaminants to flow to the East Fork. Another collapse was identified in April 2020. The DEQ director said that contaminated water could collect behind these collapses and potentially release in an uncontrolled manner if not addressed. With 200 million gallons of toxic water perched in the abandoned mine, a failure would be catastrophic. This threat adds urgency to this issue.

So what’s the lesson?

Triumph is a prime example of how mining can go very, very wrong and leave taxpayers holding the bag. Oftentimes, mining companies 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 before cleanup, pollution is either never addressed or the restoration is done at the expense of Idahoans. 

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.