Plans To Restart Mining In The Historic Stibnite District Raise Environmental Concerns
The U.S. Forest Service has asked Perpetua Resources — the company wanting to re-open and expand the Stibnite Mine east of McCall — for more information on the potential environmental impacts of its revised plan. That change means a decision on the mine won’t come until well into 2023. The site has a complex history and uncertain future here in Idaho.
Sixty-six miles along gravel roads northeast of Cascade sits the Stibnite Mining District. Miners first chased gold in the region’s rugged mountains in 1900. It was land that once belonged to the Nez Perce tribe.
“The Nez Perce tribe ceded millions of acres to the federal government,” said Shannon Wheeler, Vice-Chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee.
The Treaty of 1855 handed the U.S. government a lot of important tribal land, primarily for mining.
“A lot of the spiritual places that we reserved for prayer and song are all in those areas,” he said. “That place is sacred to us.”
This previously untouched tribal land soon became one of Idaho’s most prolific mining regions.
Mining boomed in the 1920s and 1930s with new roads and a mill increasing mining in the area’s primary pit, the Meadow Creek Mine. It soon became the second-largest producer of gold in Idaho and the only domestic source of antimony.
Production of antimony became critical during World War II, when it was used for batteries, flame retardant and weapons.
“It was a huge boon to the World War II efforts,” said Virginia Gillerman, a research geologist with the Idaho Geological Survey. “It was crucial.”
Mining in the Stibnite District expanded throughout the war. Another critical mineral for the war effort, tungsten, was found in the nearby Yellow Pine pit.
During the war, the district provided 90% of the country’s domestic supply of antimony and 40% of its tungsten.
“The production from the historic deposit was pretty significant,” Gillerman said. “I’ve seen quotes that basically Stibnite contributed to the U.S. winning World War II. It was that important.”
After the war, mining companies abandoned the region; clean up and restoration weren’t a priority.
“It was a wreck left over from the mining during the war years,” said Barry Bryant, who operates the Wapiti Meadow Ranch with his wife Diana in Yellow Pine, near the Stibnite District.
Bryant’s family has lived in the area since 1958 and he has witnessed the waves of mining and its aftermath, including after World War II.
“Literally, fish had no habitat in it because the East Fork all the way from the mine, all the way into the South Fork was just sludge,” he said. “Everything was just really nasty.”
Gillerman said the lack of federal legislation at the time meant that mines did not focus on restoration.
“Nobody, and I mean nobody, did environmental cleanup,” she said.
A second, smaller wave of mining began in the late 1970s and the area once again became the largest producer of gold in Idaho. But plummeting gold prices, hazardous waste and water quality violations brought financial turmoil and lawsuits to the mining companies. Mining activity officially ended in the district in 1996.
“A lot of our gold mines in Idaho closed in that same period in the mid 90s,” Gillerman said. “At the same time, there was increasing call for environmental regulations, but the primary cause was simply the low gold price.”
After the mines were closed, the companies did some restoration, but they only took responsibility for the smaller pits where they mined. Wartime damage wasn’t addressed.
“They didn’t do reclamation on the part of historic mining like the Yellow Pine pit because they didn’t have anything to do with it,” Gillerman said.
The large Yellow Pine mine, which was the main mine during the second World War, remained abandoned and filled with water. It remains one of the main concerns of environmental advocates.
Gillerman said that restoration of this pit will require a complex engineering operation and a large financial investment.
This is what the mining company Perpetua Resources says it will do after the district is reopened for gold mining.
Perpetua’s plans include a reclamation and restoration project to getthe area to its natural, pre-mining state. Numerous conservation advocates and nearby residents argue that Pereptua’s mining will do more harm to the natural environment and they do not believe that restoration will be sufficient.
“We had a couple of actual spills into Johnson Creek, which were very significant,” Bryant said. “And that was just this smaller size operation.”
Bringing The Mine Back To Life
In 2017, Perpetua started the approval process to restart mining. Since, the company has modified and resubmitted its proposal several times. Stakeholder feedback from the Forest Service, Environmental Protection Agency, Idaho Department of Environmental Quality and others led to some of the changes.
Perpetua also says it changed plans for Stibnite based in part because of some of the 10,000 public responses to the previous Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS).
The company shrank the size of one mining pit, and added more controls for water temperature and pollution, said Mckinsey Lyon, Vice President for External Affairs at Perpetua Resources.
“We've also been able to identify an opportunity to really reduce the overall size of the project by over 168 acres,” she said.
That’s less than a 5% reduction of the nearly 3,500 acre proposal; a plan that more than doubles the size of the original mining site and expands into previously undisturbed areas.
Perpetua expects to pull millions of ounces of gold and silver out of multiple open pit mines over more than a decade. Site prep and cleanup would add years of work before and after active mining.
Antimony, a less-valuable mineral deemed critical by the United States and other governments, is a byproduct of gold extraction and the Stibnite site would be its only domestic source.
Those extractions will make millions for Perpetua, but to the public, the company has long emphasized its restoration work within the mining proposal.
Lyon said the public may not realize that mining companies have changed.
“We have a new generation of miners that are people just like you and me who feel protective over that,” she said. “This is our backyard and we're going to take care of it.”
That’s a level of trust opponents of the project simply can’t meet.
“It's a big leap of faith,” said Josh Johnson. He’s with the Idaho Conservation League, one of many environmental groups opposed to new mining at the site.
He said far too many questions were unanswered in the first draft EIS, and he was glad to see the supplemental work ordered by the U.S. Forest Service.
“We keep seeing the goalposts being moved,” he said, referencing the multiple modifications to Perpetua’s operational plans.
“It's good to see some incremental steps there, but we're also, as the public being told, ‘Here's this latest analysis, and then here's some more analysis, here's some more.’ It really just highlights the complexity of the proposal and the seriousness of the environmental consequences at the site.”
Potential For Long-Term Environmental Harm
Opponents' biggest concerns haven’t changed: worries that a 400-foot dam planned to hold back toxic tailings could fail and send those toxins down the Salmon River. Miles of new access roads carved through previously undisturbed wilderness.
Johnson wants more research on the potential for airborne arsenic contamination as rock is broken up to expose gold.
Another worry is the potential long-term impacts on fish — endangered salmon, bull trout and steelhead, which all use the watershed as spawning grounds.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s concerns about water also factored into the need for more research. Brian Harris is Forest Service spokesman for the Payette National Forest.
“The biggest changes that we're focused on right now are the water quality and the warmer water temperature aspects,” he said.
Those fluctuations can impact the health of fish in the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon River, and further downstream.
That area is headwaters of the Columbia River system, which includes the Salmon and Snake Rivers. Currently, fish can’t naturally access anywhere upstream of the Yellow Pit Mine. The work Perpetua wants to do would open up miles of headwaters spawning ground farther upstream.
The Nez Perce Tribe does collect some fish from nearby Johnson Creek and transports them around the site to spawning grounds upstream and back, about a 40-mile round trip. Some years there are not enough fish to make that trip.
Mary Faurot-Peterson is a now-retired Forest Service fish biologist who spent years working in the Payette National Forest. She also was part of clean-up efforts in the Stibnite Mining District. She says potential damage to fish populations compounds even after mining activity and clean-up stop.
In the river, she said, “there, at any given time, are several years of freshwater life history stages: baby salmon and trout, and potentially several years of adult spawners.”
“Many generations in one year of impact from the mine. So if you multiply that out over 25 years, you're talking about a much longer impact to the actual fish population.”
Faurot-Peterson is concerned that a nearly mile-long manufactured fish passage around the mine — essentially a fish ladder in a tunnel — won’t be passable in a stable, safe way for those endangered fish, as well as Idaho’s state fish, the cutthroat trout.
Biologists and engineers hired by Perpetua to design the passage say the tunnel is the best option, and flows on the diverted stream will be carefully designed not to inhibit fish. While the combination of fish passage elements in the Stibnite design is new, they say individual elements have been used successfully elsewhere.
The fish passage is temporary during mining. Perpetua’s plan calls for rebuilding the stream bed — with a liner underneath to prevent toxic leaching — after mining is finished.
Once the supplemental DEIS is completed, another public comment period will begin. The average length of time for a complete environmental review is 7 to 11 years and mining permits won’t be issued until it’s done.
“We're just four years into this,” said Harris, the Payette National Forest Spokesman. "If we finish in five-six years, then that's less than the average timeframe. So it's a process,” he said.
There are still many unanswered questions about the project. Regulatory agencies like the EPA, Corps of Engineers and state-level agencies like the Department of Environmental Quality will continue to weigh in on the plan, and will use the results of the EIS, once finalized, to determine whether to permit the project.
The now retired Faurot-Peterson is actively involved in the Save the South Fork organization. She says the time for additional review is also more opportunity for groups like hers to rally support. She’s working to build a coalition of local business owners against the project.
“My goal is to promote ecologically-informed stewardship of the Southfork Salmon River and its threatened salmon and trout,” she said.
Meanwhile, Perpetua says it’s 100% dedicated to seeing the project through. The company remains in mediation with the Nez Perce Tribe over a lawsuit claiming Midas Gold — the company’s name at the time — violated the Clean Water Act with its early exploration activity on the site which began in 2009. Perpetua has disputed the claims.
Neither side could comment on that pending lawsuit or the mediation process, but press releases in February stated the stay for mediation would last three months.
The Forest Service expects to release its completed supplemental draft environmental impact statement to the public early next year. After public comment, Perpetua could make additional modifications to its plan of operations, which could trigger the need for additional review and possibly another supplemental DEIS process.
If that doesn’t happen, the Forest Service issues a final EIS and takes the next step, called a draft letter or record of decision. That document shares a likely — but not final — decision from the Forest Service.
Members of the public who made comments previously on the project would then have the opportunity to object to the draft letter, and the federal agency would review those objections. After that process, a final record of decision is produced, and the matter moves to the permitting phase.
If it stays on schedule, the Forest Service could issue its final record of decision of Perpetua’s Stibnite plan some time in the first half of 2023.