In West, mining's return faces resistance

The region's newcomers, who came for high-tech jobs and scenery, worry about ecological costs.

Ben Arnoldy
Opposition: Boise residents like John Heimer are skeptical of plans for a gold mine by the Boise river, which will be underground.
Ben Arnoldy
The DeLamar Mine

Not many cities can boast downtowns with both high-end jobs and river raft launches. That's what brought newcomers like the Gattiker family to Boise in droves – and what's driving them crazy about the coming of a gold mine.

"It just offended me that this company would come in and build this gold mine at the headwaters of the Boise River," says Kim Gattiker. "This river personifies the reason we moved here."

The family relocated to Boise three years ago, after Mr. Gattiker got job offers in three states. He now bikes to work along the riverfront and takes their sons fishing there. She, meanwhile, has become a activist opposing the mine.

Similar fights are playing out across the West as the high price of metals has brought mining roaring back to the region. Once seen as economic engines, mining companies are now treated more like pariahs in communities that have prospered by attracting wealthy pre-retirees and "knowledge economy" jobs.

"The [economic] imperative decades ago was 'we have to do the mine, it's all we can look to,' " says Larry Swanson, an economist at the University of Montana's Center for the Rocky Mountain West. "And now we've had this amenity-based growth here and ... the reality is now people are living off the scenery. People wouldn't be coming without it."

Baby boomers have been pouring into the interior West, bringing wealth and mobile careers. High-tech industries such as semiconductors have brought younger talent. The newcomers help diversify the economy and give it stability.

"[Mining booms] may be a 10-or-15 year proposition," says Dr. Swanson. "We have a lot of experience with what happens after that – nothing. Except a clean up. And litigation."

Mining projects have stirred local resistance from Grass Valley, Calif., to the edge of the Grand Canyon.

Residents in Crested Butte, Colo., which hasn't seen mining in almost a half century, are fighting plans for a molybdenum mine on the iconic Red Lady mountain above the resort town. "[Residents] are concerned about the economy we have built up here, which is tourism," says Mayor Alan Bernholtz in a phone interview. "I don't think mining and tourism mix too well."

Montana voters approved and upheld a measure banning the controversial open-pit practice known as cyanide-leach mining.

That grass-roots revolt caught the eye of Boise's mayor, David Bieter. He took the unusual step of opposing the Atlanta Gold Mine, which was slated to be a cyanide-leach operation.

"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."

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.

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