Letters from the West

Idaho could offer cobalt that’s clean, reliable and not mined by children

Part of the eCobalt team tours the site of its proposed cobalt mine near Salmon.
Part of the eCobalt team tours the site of its proposed cobalt mine near Salmon.

The huge demand worldwide for electric cars and smartphones is moving Idaho closer to opening the nation’s only cobalt mine.

Cobalt prices have quadrupled over the last two years to $40 a pound, buoying the efforts by Canadian-based eCobalt to finally launch its Idaho Cobalt Project 22 miles northwest of Salmon. The company will decide later this year whether to begin production on its proposed underground mine, which already is fully permitted by the U.S. Forest Service and the Environmental Protection Agency.

That comes amid international reports of child labor used in the world’s major source of cobalt. CBS News recently broadcast images of children standing knee-deep in the toxic tailings ponds of old cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, picking up cobalt for sale in China and elsewhere. This “conflict cobalt,” as human rights advocates call it, creeps into the smartphones, electric cars and batteries that have made demand for the metal soar. Major companies like Apple say they’re examining their supply chains, but the CBS reporting suggests it’s hard to track which cobalt was mined with child labor.

The Idaho cobalt mine would be the only domestic source of the mineral. James West, who writes a newsletter about the Canadian cobalt industry, recently suggested Apple might seek a strategic partnership with eCobalt while it looks for U.S. investment.

More than 50 percent of cobalt is mined in Congo, mostly by the Swiss mining and trading company Glencore, which accounts for 35 percent of the entire world market. Glencore says it has no child labor; its Katanga Mine in Congo, which was not included in the CBS report, has just reopened.

Glencore CEO Ivan Glasenberg said there isn’t enough cobalt available from world mines or recycling to meet the spike in demand from electric car batteries and smartphones.

“The world will have to find a better solution,” he said in Bloomberg Markets.

The eCobalt mine northwest of Salmon has been in the development stage for 30 years. It would produce 1,500 tons of cobalt annually, about 2 percent of the world supply.

The market tanked in 2013, and the company, then called Formation Metals, pulled back. But it announced last year a plan to open the mine and build a refining facility in Blackfoot. Since then, it has changed its final product to clean cobalt concentrate, which will make it easier to meet market demand and will actually cost less to produce,said eCobalt spokeswoman Fiona Grant.

“The year has gotten off to a great start for eCobalt,” company President Paul Farquharson said in a January 2018 press release. “We have a number of key development milestones expected in 2018, as we move towards construction and mine development in the third quarter of the year.”

The mine will require an investment of $187 million and is expected to create 100 mining jobs and up to 30 additional jobs in Blackfoot.

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Power lines and a substation that have been installed at eCobalt’s future mine site near Salmon. Provided by eCobalt

Having the added value of the refining plant spreads the mine’s impact to all of eastern Idaho, said Jan Rogers, CEO of Regional Economic Development for Eastern Idaho, a nonprofit focused on business development in the region. Many of the nation’s automobile manufacturers test their advanced batteries at the Idaho National Laboratory, which could get more business because of the domestic source of cobalt.

“There is some synergy here,” Rogers said.

Historically, manipulation of the world market has blocked development of the rich cobalt deposits eCobalt is tapping into. When the neighboring Blackbird Mine was on the verge of reopening in the early 1980s, then-Zaire President Mobutu Sese Seko increased production in his country to lower the market price. That kept the Idaho mine closed.

When the Idaho Cobalt Project mine unsuccessfully sought to open in 2008, its previous managers suggested Blackbird’s owner, now a part of Glencore, was seeking to corner the cobalt market. In the end, those managers just couldn’t raise enough money to move forward during the deep recession.

The environmental risk from cobalt mining practices is not significantly different than those for other minerals. Like all mines involving sulfide deposits, acid rock drainage can dump heavy metals into streams if the problem is not managed right.

In this case, environmental groups and Indian tribes did not challenge eCobalt’s permit. They worked with the company to ensure its operations won’t repeat the mistakes of its neighbor — which had its tailings pond fail in the 1950s, sending millions of gallons of heavy-metal waste down Panther Creek, killing off the river and its run of chinook salmon.

A federal lawsuit brought by then-Gov. Cecil Andrus and Attorney General Jim Jones in the 1980s forced Blackbird to fund a massive cleanup. Its owners spent more than $100 million, and today Panther Creek has salmon returning to spawn annually.

In an agreement with the Idaho Conservation League, eCobalt established a conservation fund and has contributed money in the past to conservation projects in the basin. ICL will review the project to ensure it still meets the permit, and expects eCobalt to continue supporting the conservation programs once mining begins, said the ICL’s John Robison.

Overall, Grant said, eCobalt is committed to operating a sustainable mine that meets all of the ethical and environmental demands of companies like Apple, Tesla and the world market.

“We are even looking at our electricity over the life of the operation to reduce our carbon footprint,” Grant said.

An earlier version of this story had slightly different forecasts for investment and job creation.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker