Between the towns of Challis and Salmon in central Idaho, the mighty Salmon River winds its way through a rugged landscape of volcanic rock. This watershed is most known for its endangered fish species (salmon and steelhead) and the excellent fishing and boating to be found on its rivers and streams. But in recent years, this area has a new draw: cobalt. 

The Idaho Cobalt Belt is the United States’ largest primary deposit of cobalt—a blueish metal that is increasingly in demand due to its use in a significant proportion of electric vehicle batteries. Several companies are interested in extracting this cobalt; at ICL, we recognize the need to cobalt in the clean energy transition but also work to ensure that any mining activity is conducted to the highest environmental standards possible. Idaho has unfortunately inherited a legacy of toxic pollution from poorly managed mines that operated without sufficient oversight.

Salmon River. Ecoflight photo.

One of the newer proposed cobalt projects in the area is the Iron Creek Exploration Project — a proposal by Canadian company Electra Battery Materials to construct 91 exploratory drill sites over a period of 10 years in the Iron Creek watershed, which drains into the Salmon River. The Forest Service recently analyzed and approved this exploration project. ICL reviewed and commented on this proposal as is our standard practice for mining projects of this scale. During our review, we identified a major shortcoming in the project — the Forest Service was not planning to require the company to do any sort of water quality monitoring while they conducted drilling operations. This type of monitoring is typically conducted for mineral exploration projects because of the potential for drilling to mobilize naturally occurring contaminants such as heavy metals from these mineralized areas and pollute local groundwater or surface water.

Exploration drill pad.

Water quality monitoring is particularly important for this project for two reasons: 1) the project’s location within the Salmon River watershed with its ESA-listed fish species, and 2) a history of water quality issues at the project site associated with historic mine tunnels from a prior operation. In 2021, the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality issued a consent order (a formal letter of concern) to Electra regarding the unauthorized discharge of contaminated water (which Electra is currently liable for) from these old mining tunnels into a tributary stream of Iron Creek. The mining company was subsequently required to plug these tunnels in an effort to control the pollution and pay a fine of roughly $40,000. 

An adit at the Atlanta Gold mine near Atlanta, Idaho. Thousands of abandoned mine tunnels like this threaten water quality across the state.

Given the lack of proposed monitoring and the prior water quality issues in mind, ICL filed an administrative objection to the Forest Service’s draft decision approving this project and alerted Electra about our concerns. Over the course of several meetings with staff from the Forest Service, we were able to negotiate a partial resolution to our objection. Ultimately, the Forest Service and Electra agreed to 1) include a water quality monitoring plan as a requirement of the project, and 2) commit to making that data publicly available. The monitoring plan, which was developed for the mining company by an environmental consulting firm, identifies five monitoring locations in the project area which covers all of the different streams in the area and a commitment to sample these on a monthly basis during the operating season (May-November). Groundwater will also be tested in the event it is encountered during the course of the drilling. This water quality data will help us keep an eye on the drilling operations and hold the company accountable if spikes in contaminants are detected in the waterways that run through the project area.

Water quality monitoring needs to be a standard requirement in the mining review process. It is much easier to keep clean water clean than to try to clean it up once it is contaminated. While we were able to rectify that particular issue on the Iron Creek project, we remain concerned about the recent trend of the Forest Service approving significant mineral exploration projects without any water quality monitoring whatsoever. We are hoping to work proactively with the Forest Service and responsible mining proponents to find a path forward in this regard to apply to future mining projects that may be proposed on our public lands. While we do need mined metals like cobalt to some degree, we also need clean water and ICL will continue to work steadfastly to protect our precious rivers and streams from mining pollution.

You can help protect Idaho’s clean water and public lands today by speaking out against the Mining Regulatory Clarity Act, an ill-conceived proposed mining law that represents an unprecedented giveaway of America’s cherished public lands to mining corporations. Instead of giving away more to the mining industry, we need to strike a better balance so that drinking water supplies are protecting from high risk mining projects, communities and Tribes have a right of self-determination and a right to say no, and polluters are held accountable. Take action today by speaking out against the Mining Regulatory Clarity Act!