Letters from the West

Miners agree this Idaho river is in danger. Their solution? More mining.

Sediment from the Stibnite mine site flows into Blowout Creek, a tributary of the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon River.
Sediment from the Stibnite mine site flows into Blowout Creek, a tributary of the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon River.

River advocates Tuesday named the South Fork of the Salmon River one of the nation’s most endangered rivers, urging the U.S. Forest Service to prohibit the reopening of a gold and antimony mine that continues to bleed heavy metals from its headwaters.

American Rivers said mining should be banned on the tributary of the Salmon River, one of the most important spawning grounds for wild endangered salmon, steelhead and bull trout.

“The South Fork Salmon still boasts clear, free-flowing waters, and feeds the beloved wild and scenic Main Salmon downstream,” said Mike Fiebig with American Rivers in Bozeman, in a press release. “It’s time for the U.S. Forest Service to put an end once and for all to toxic mining near this treasured river.”

Laurel Sayer is CEO of Midas Gold, the company that is seeking to mine at the Stibnite site on the East Fork of the South Fork. She agrees the river is threatened by the historic mining. But, she said, American Rivers and its partners have the wrong remedy.

“Doing nothing will continue to let fish habitat and water quality deteriorate and keep salmon blocked from their native spawning grounds,” Sayer said. “At Midas Gold, we’ve already developed a comprehensive plan to finally restore the river’s ecosystem, and do much of that during the very early years of the project.”

The South Fork of the Salmon, located east of McCall, is a major tributary of the Salmon River, the second-longest, free-flowing river in the Lower 48. It remains a major fishing site for Nez Perce, Shoshone, Bannock and Paiute tribal members.

Its expert-level whitewater brings kayakers from around the world. The Forest Service deemed it eligible for protection under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

Stibnite has been mined for gold and antimony, a metal used in batteries and flame retardant, since the 1800s. Miners left open pits and dug-up stream beds that continue to leak cyanide, mercury, antimony and other toxic metals into the river, the U.S. Geological Survey said in 2015.

The Forest Service, the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality and several mining companies spent $13 million over the last four decades to reduce the pollution.

River advocates say the contamination is getting better. But, they say Midas Gold’s work threatens to make things worse and opens the possibility of spills and accidents during the company’s operations.

“It makes no sense to backtrack,” said Fiebig. “Reopening this mine would have catastrophic repercussions not only for the South Fork of the Salmon River, but also the downstream communities that depend on a healthy Salmon River system for jobs, livelihoods and cultural heritage.”

Sayer said the opposite is true. The company will reconnect salmon to their native spawning grounds for the first time in 80 years, she said, before mining even begins.

Midas will stop hundreds of tons of sediment from entering the river from an earthen dam that failed in the 1960s, she said. Another pile of 10.5 million tons of ore and waste left by past miners will be reprocessed and its toxic metals removed.

The company also plans to invest in wetlands and the stream channel so the ecosystem can recover and habitat and water quality can be restored, she said.

“As Idahoans, we are acutely aware of why restoring the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon River is more critical than ever,” Sayer said in a press release.

The Forest Service is reviewing the Stibnite project and a draft environment impact statement is expected later this year. Midas Gold will need 50 permits from state and federal agencies and, under state and federal law, must have a bond and finances set aside for restoration ahead of time.

Greg Stahl, a spokesman for Idaho Rivers United, is skeptical. He points to the Grouse Creek Mine on a tributary of the Salmon River near Stanley, where in the 1990s Hecla Mining spent millions on river restoration, then promised its state-of-the-art technology would protect the river and groundwater when mining began.

Its tailing pond leaked, and floods blew out the restored stretch of the river. Hecla overestimated its reserves and continues to have to perpetually treat the water from the toxic lake that replaced a scenic mountain meadow.

“It was an unmitigated environmental disaster, and taxpayers were left holding the bag,” Stahl said. “A mine disguised as anything else is still a mine, and the South Fork of the Salmon is one of our state’s best rivers.”

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker