Can mining heal a river?
Midas Gold Corp., a Canadian mining company with an Idaho subsidiary, wants you to believe that its mining project can.
Over the past century, mining companies have come and gone from the Stibnite mine site, near Yellow Pine, and have made a variety of promises to the residents of this state. But they all have left behind the same legacy — a polluted and scarred landscape. Now, the latest mining company to arrive at Stibnite, Midas Gold, wants you to believe that it alone is going to “restore” the site, and do it with a brand-new gold mine.
Midas Gold is proposing the Stibnite Gold Project, a huge open-pit surface mine in the headwaters of the East Fork South Fork Salmon River and within the Nez Perce Tribe territory. The company plans to redisturb the current mine site and excavate an additional 800 acres of currently undisturbed wildlife habitat, with three enormous mining pits. Two of these pits will be left on the landscape in perpetuity. The company also plans to fill three valleys with 450 million tons of mine tailings and waste rock, and plans to build a 26-foot-wide access road through three roadless areas, along the boundary of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.
And these impacts are potentially just the beginning.
Most mines, once opened, expand, and Midas has already promoted the potential for expansion. This means that the Stibnite Gold mine could go from a large mine at the initial permitting phase to a mega-mine involving additional acres, deposits, mining pits and filled valleys, with compounding destructive environmental effects.
Is this the picture you’ve gotten from Midas Gold’s promotional materials, or have you just heard about its restoration plans for the site?
The reality is that Midas Gold’s restoration plans are minor compared to the sheer scale of disturbance associated with the money-making aspects of the mine. Midas Gold’s restoration plans also distract from the real potential that its project will actually increase contamination of the site and the Salmon River.
Earthworks’ 2013 U.S. Gold Mines Spills & Failures Report study found that of 27 active gold mines in the United States (93 percent of U.S. gold production), all had experienced at least one pipeline spill or other accidental release. The report also found that 20 of the 27 mines failed to capture or control contaminated mine seepage and had water quality impacts to surface and/or groundwater. Midas Gold claims that the liners it plans to place below, and the soil covers on top, of its mine tailings will entirely prevent the type of contaminated seepage documented in the 2013 Earthworks report.
Unfortunately, all liners leak. They leak because they have some natural permeability and because they also have defects. And Midas’ leaking tailings piles may be the least of the problem. Midas doesn’t plan to line its waste rock deposits at the site. If the soil covers and vegetation Midas plans to use don’t work – which is likely given that unlined waste rock deposits have leaked at similar sites – then these features will also leak contaminated heavy metals into ground and/or surface water.
There is no question that the long history of mining at the Stibnite site has left this site in Idaho degraded and in need of healing. But betting on a new, enormous mine to do the cleanup is too risky for fish and wildlife, for the residents of Idaho and for the Nez Perce people, who have worked since the mid-1990s – expending approximately $2.5 million annually – to restore fish populations and fish habitat in the Salmon River watershed.
The preservation of Idaho’s cherished natural resources is a top priority for the Nez Perce people, and the Nez Perce Tribe opposes the Stibnite Gold Project. Please join us.
Shannon Wheeler is the Nez Perce Tribe executive committee chairman.