In West, mining's return faces resistance
The region's newcomers, who came for high-tech jobs and scenery, worry about ecological costs.
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"I was definitely aware of the irony of opposing a mine in a mining town," says Mayor Bieter. "[But] the Boise River in the time I have lived here has gotten a ton clearer, and to put this at the headwaters is not what we want to see."Skip to next paragraph
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In the face of opposition, the company has pulled back its plans, proposing underground mining only. "This isn't going to be a cyanide project," says Ernest Simmons, the mine's chief operating officer.
Still, opponents worry about an unpaved access road that trucks must use to bring fuel to the mine. Any accident could dump chemicals into Boise's drinking water. And water runoff from the mountain must be treated in perpetuity for arsenic.
It's not just newcomers but twice-shy old-timers who question the mine. Retired biologist John Heimer spent decades with the state Fish & Game Department evaluating mining operations. "I'm very skeptical of what anybody tells me. Most of the time they are telling you what they think will happen – in their own minds – but accidents do happen," says Mr. Heimer.
The industry labors under the difficulty of living down its legacy, acknowledges Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association. But, he says, today's operations run safely under comprehensive regulations that ensure these aren't your grandfather's mines.
"Why would you not want to [mine] here in the US where you have the most comprehensive environmental laws in the world?" asks Mr. Popovich.
Opponents risk driving up environmental damage offshore and driving out high-wage jobs, he says.
The Atlanta Gold Mine could be one of the biggest taxpayers and employers in this part of Idaho, says Mr. Simmons. The mine sits on claims held since the 1850s, and the property has generated tax revenue "longer than anyone who is opposing it."
Simmons agrees that the road to the mine poses a danger, and he says he intends to do battle again with snowmobilers and the US Forest Service who cut off access on safer roads. As for the arsenic runoff, the company will build water treatment facilities directly into an onsite mill, he says.
But water treatment will need to continue even after the mill closes down. Environmental groups want a full, up-front bond to cover that future cost, but the company is pushing for a smaller bond phased-in over time.
"The Forest Service is supposed to ask for full-cost bonding before allowing mining operations," says John Robison, public lands director for the Idaho Conservation League. Taking the company's offer, he says, might "leave not only the taxpayers exposed but threatens to leave the headwaters of the Boise River with a serious arsenic problem."
Simmons says the bond would be supplemented by money from proposed federal royalty fees on mining.
That's not exactly the intent of reformers pushing Congress to revamp the 1872 mining law. They want the royalties to go toward cleaning up the estimated $50 billion in existing mining messes while preventing new liabilities with up-front bonding.