Letters from the West

Idaho regulators shut down gold mine southeast of Boise

A view out from the 900 adit, a 1917 tunnel that has bled arsenic pollution into Montezuma Creek in Atlanta east of Boise since miners abandoned the mine decades ago. Atlanta Gold installed a bulkhead and filters to treat the polluted water.
A view out from the 900 adit, a 1917 tunnel that has bled arsenic pollution into Montezuma Creek in Atlanta east of Boise since miners abandoned the mine decades ago. Atlanta Gold installed a bulkhead and filters to treat the polluted water. Photo courtesy Atlanta Gold

Atlanta Gold continues to dump arsenic into a tributary of the Boise River and now has been forced to shut down another operation in a historic gold mining area southeast of Boise because it has no permit.

The Idaho Department of Lands issued a cease-and-desist order in September after inspecting the site off Blacks Creek Road, where it found mining going on without a reclamation plan or a bond, a direct violation of the Idaho Surface Mining Act.

“If (Atlanta Gold) does not immediately stop operations, this matter will be forwarded to the Attorney General’s Office,” Derek Kraft, senior Department of Lands Resource specialist, wrote Sept. 22.

The company had said in its annual report that it dug up 8,000 tons of gold-bearing ore in 2015. Atlanta filed a notice of exploration in July 2015, but Kraft said in his letter that digging so much material was mining, not exploration.

The Boise company stopped operations in September and has not moved any ore off the site, said Atlanta Gold CEO Ernie Simmons. He said he provided the state with the information it required for the reclamation plan, showing how acid rock mined on the site would not pollute water in the area. Such rock, when in contact with water, can leach heavy metals.

But Idaho Department of Lands officials said they do not have enough information to approve the reclamation plan or set the appropriate bond.

“Their plan is incomplete,” said Sharla Arledge, a spokeswoman for the agency.

Kraft said the waste dump and other piles of dirt and rock he found on the site were not where the draft reclamation plan said they would be. About 13,000 cubic yards of ore is piled up and 10,000 cubic feet of material that was removed to get to the ore remains on the site.

STILL UNADDRESSED: BOISE RIVER TRIBUTARY

Atlanta Gold’s latest brush with the law comes as The Idaho Conservation League and the Northwest Environmental Defense Center have gone back to federal court to ask a judge to find the company in contempt of court.

In 2012, U.S. Magistrate Judge Mikel ordered Atlanta Gold to reduce its pollution of arsenic and iron into Montezuma Creek, 35 miles east of Idaho City in Atlanta, and to pay a $2 million fine for hundreds of violations of the Clean Water Act

Montezuma Creek is a tributary of the Middle Fork of the Boise River, which joins with other headwaters above Lucky Peak Dam to become the Boise River, a source of drinking water for Boise and other Treasure Valley communities.

In their recent filing, the two environmental groups document what they say are more than 500 new violations of the Clean Water Act and show that Atlanta Gold is not paying the fine.

In its legal response, Atlanta Gold said it had made some payments but now cannot pay because its only revenue is coming from investors, loans and royalties on future income, which still doesn’t cover costs.

“The financial condition of (Atlanta Gold) is grim,” company attorney Michelle Points said in the company’s response to the environmentalists’ call for contempt. “There continues to be significant doubt that (Atlanta Gold) will be able to continue as a going concern if certain investment opportunities do not come to fruition.”

Simmons said a recent loan from a Japanese company is keeping the company in operation. He said the company’s water treatment facility in Atlanta is cleaning up the water leaving an old mine tunnel, known as the 900 adit, making it cleaner than natural levels of arsenic and iron in Montezuma Creek — except during runoff season, when the amount of water overwhelms the treatment plant.

“I can’t control the amount of water coming into the tunnel,” Simmons said.

MINING HISTORY

Miners have worked both the Atlanta site and the Neal site near Blacks Creek since the 1800s.

The area near Atlanta was first mined in 1864. Atlanta Gold has been exploring there since 1994 under a Forest Service permit. In 2011, the company exercised its option on 33 nearby mining claims on 430 acres previously owned by Monarch Greenback. Those included the 1917 adit, which was part of the Talache mine. Active until the 1960s, the mine left 1 million cubic feet of tailings laced with arsenic and mercury along the banks of Montezuma Creek.

Atlanta Gold has been seeking a mining permit on and off for more than a decade.

Since Williams’ 2012 order, Simmons has sought to plug the adit as a permanent solution. But U.S. Forest Service officials who have jurisdiction have rejected that option.

Plugging the adit would allow water to build up and could eventually lead to a blowout similar to what happened at the Gold King Mine in Silverton, Colo., where 3 million tons of water polluted with heavy metal poured into the Animas River, said Justin Hayes, Idaho Conservation League program director.

“If a plug breaks, it would be catastrophic,” Hayes said.

Boise National Forest Idaho City District Ranger Brant Petersen said he has not received a new treatment plant proposal from Atlanta Gold. His agency is also waiting for a new plan for mining operations from the company.

Atlanta Gold has not been forced to post a bond for its water treatment plant at the old mine site. So if the treatment of the polluted water fails, or if Atlanta Gold goes bankrupt, federal taxpayers would have to pay for cleanup or damages.

“We honestly don’t have a new opinion/position on the water treatment operations, other than compliance with the long-standing court-ordered water quality standards,” Petersen wrote in an email. “With that said, one of the primary issues is control or moderation of the high water flows out of the 900 level adit.

“This is an issue in the spring of each year and could be a major issue in the event of an adit or shaft collapse.”

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

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