When a federal judge ruled earlier this year that Atlanta Gold was liable for the pollution flowing from an old mine tunnel and ordered the mining company to pay a $2 million fine, it looked like a major setback.
But Atlanta Gold CEO Ernie Simmons said U.S. District Judge Mikel Williams order actually was a victory for the Canadian company that has been trying to mine gold in the historic mining area near the Boise National Forest hamlet of Atlanta since 1985.
It cost me $2 million instead of a lot more, Simmons said.
For the first time in decades, water flowing from an old mining tunnel into Montezuma Creek, a tributary of the Boise River, meets federal clean water standards. Atlanta Gold installed a new filtration system that has reduced arsenic levels from 5,000 parts per billion to less than 50 ppb, which is almost undetectable, Simmons said.
The new system is just a start, Simmons said. He plans to install an engineered plug into the tunnel that will stop the flows and eventually reduce the levels of arsenic and iron in the tunnel.
This would eliminate the need to treat the water in perpetuity, a long-term liability for the company and the federal government on whose land it lies.
When the court ruled Atlanta Gold had liability, it was clear to Simmons that he had to keep the problem from lingering.
I learned that lesson 30 years ago, Simmons said.
In the 1980s, Simmons was manager of the Blackbird cobalt mine northwest of Salmon. When Noranda Corp. decided to halt operations before production began on the historic mine that had polluted large portions of the Panther Creek drainage, it was forced to build a water-treatment plant to remove the heavy metals flowing with the water from the mine.
Operating that plant has cost the Blackbird mines owners $50 million since, Simmons said.
A NEW PERMIT
Once the Atlanta-area tunnel plug is completed in the next two years, Simmon said, the company wont need an $8 million bond demanded by the U.S. Forest Service to ensure the old mine pollution gets cleaned up, Simmons said. Atlanta Gold has been exploring since 1994 under a Forest Service permit but will need a Forest Service mine permit to move to active mining.
The Forest Service has been silent lately on its previous demand for a bond during exploration. Forest Service officials did not return calls Wednesday.
But another federal official said its a little early for Atlanta Gold to claim success.
You cant declare victory based on three samples, said Dave Tomten, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agencys Idaho mining coordinator.
The challenge with the tunnel always has been the variability of flows and pollution levels, Tomten said.
The real test will be in the spring when water flow peaks, he said.
VERY STRONG MESSAGE
The Idaho Conservation League and the Northwest Environmental Defense Center brought the lawsuit in 2011 against Atlanta Gold that led to Williams order.
One has to wonder, if this was such an easy fix, why didnt they do it earlier? asked John Robison, ICL public lands director.
Atlantas $2 million fine will go into the treasury, instead of into a bond to offset environmental rehabilitation. But Robison said thats OK.
It sent a very strong message to mining companies across the West that they simply cant evade the Clean Water Act, Robison said.
Nevertheless, Robison is pleased with Atlantas treatment system for now and hopes it works.
Anytime the river gets cleaner, its a victory, Robison said.
LOOKING FOR GOLD
Simmons, who took over this year as CEO of Atlanta Gold, is moving forward with mining plans. The company sent a 107-ton bulk sample of gold ore this summer through Knife River Corp.s test facility in Boise, which uses a process modeled on a plant operating at the Gold Hill mine near Placerville.
We plan to work with Knife River to replicate the existing process facility on the Atlanta project site, improve the technology and customize it for Atlantas purposes, Simmons said.
Simmons estimates that 1 million ounces of gold is minable from Atlantas holdings 60 miles east of Boise. With gold at $1,692 an ounce Wednesday, that would generate revenue for Atlanta.
Most of the gold is bound up with the deposits arsenic. Eventually, Simmons said, he wants to put 150 people to work mining the arsenic and gold ore and sending it to Nevada for processing.
That would remove the poison from the Boise River drainage altogether.
If the company prevents past pollution from leaking into the Boise River and sends arsenic ore out of state, Simmons is hopeful he can turn around attitudes about the mine.
At 75, hes got a lot he wants to do in the three years he has remaining on his contract with Atlanta Gold.
Im going to see gold in bricks and people are going to like it because we are keeping the river clean, he said.
To complete his ambitious plan, Simmons is going to need authorization from EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Forest Service, the EPAs Tomten said. But he applauded the long-term approach Simmons is taking, especially toward his environmental obligations.
The guys got vision, Tomten said. Ill give him credit for that.
Rocky Barker: 377-6484