The U.S. Forest Service is starting the permitting process for Midas Gold’s Stibnite Gold Project in north-central Idaho. The Canadian mining company’s open-pit mine project is in the headwaters of the South Fork Salmon River, a place revered for its salmon, wild country and world-class whitewater.
Previous mining companies at Stibnite were unable to manage arsenic problems, resulting in a polluted landscape with taxpayers left on the hook for cleanup costs. Stibnite Gold is being touted as a benign restoration project — and it does have some creative components. However, the company continues to downplay the negatives in its mining plan that actually increase the long-term risks of environmental degradation.
At its core, Stibnite Gold is still a massive open-pit cyanide vat leach mining project. Furthermore, modern mining isn’t as clean as proponents say. A new study released this week by Earthworks examines the track records of the 27 modern gold mining companies that are responsible for 93 percent of gold production in the U.S. The study found that every single one of these state-of-the-art mining projects accidentally spilled cyanide, mine waste, diesel fuel or other hazardous materials. Of the mines, 74 percent polluted water, resulting in fish kills and contaminated drinking water supplies. The Stibnite Gold Project is arguably more complex and higher risk than any of these other mines.
Midas Gold recently provided a bulleted list highlighting the benefits of the project. However, this list neglects to mention the very real downsides. Here are two examples:
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“Without the Stibnite Gold Project, fish will never migrate back to historic spawning grounds.”
Maybe, but with the project, the fish that do migrate back would find over a mile of pristine spawning grounds smothered under hundreds of feet of new mine tailings and waste rock.
“Without the Stibnite Gold Project, the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon River will continue to flow straight into an abandoned mine pit.”
Maybe, but with the project the East Fork South Fork Salmon River will flow straight into a tunnel and the river channel will be transformed into an open pit before being refilled with waste rock.
The previously abysmal environmental track record at Stibnite does not mean that the Forest Service should let anything go. It is possible to actually make things worse, as the new study shows. People who want to see something happen there should temper their enthusiasm somewhat and take a second look at what is being proposed. Idahoans need to know the true costs and potential risks to our water. While the scoping period closed earlier this month, the Forest Service will accept comments throughout the analysis process.
It may be possible for Midas Gold to have a successful mine at Stibnite, but it will require a smaller footprint and more certainty for restoration. The Midas Gold team is smart and committed and they need to develop a plan that doesn’t sacrifice additional pristine areas or place the salmon at greater risk.
John Robison is the Public Lands Director of the Idaho Conservation League.