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Improved plans for Stibnite still threaten endangered fish, opponents say

 Standing at the foot of the Yellow Pine pit, a man-made lake resulting from generations of past mining at Stibnite. The photo faces west, with the outlet of the east fork south fork Salmon River in the foreground.
Troy Oppie
Boise State Public Radio
Standing at the foot of the Yellow Pine pit, a man-made lake resulting from generations of past mining at Stibnite. The photo faces west, with the outlet of the east fork south fork Salmon River in the foreground.

The most recent forest service draft environmental review, and the summarized, more visual 'story map' of the updates, is open for public comment through Jan. 10. A new comment period was required due to substantial changes made to the plan following the first public comment period.

“We really had three main goals that came from listening to the last round of public feedback,” said Mckinsey Lyon, Perpetua Resources’ Vice President of External Affairs. “[To] improve water quality, to reduce water temperature and to reduce the project footprint.”

Perpetua, formerly known as Midas Gold, has accomplished these goals, she said. The forest service in its supplemental draft environmental impact statement identified the company’s new plan as its preferred option for mining to go forward.

It’s a complex plan, which includes re-routing the East Fork South Fork Salmon River in a tunnel around the existing Yellow Pine Pit during mining. The pit and its harsh water conditions due to a century of previous mining and sediment runoff is currently the last stop for migrating salmon because the waterfall feeding the pit lake isn’t passable.

Rocky waterfall
Troy Oppie
Boise State Public Radio
The rocky waterfall of the East Fork South Fork Salmon River into the Yellow Pine Pit Lake, as seen from above. The impassable waterway for fish was left by previous mining operations at Stibnite.

We reported on the fish tunnel in 2021 - a somewhat novel idea that has some scientists divided on whether it will work. If it does, salmon and other fish will regain direct access to long-lost spawning grounds and habitat above the pit. Perpetua’s backup plan is to shuttle fish in trucks around the mine, like the Nez Perce Tribe has already been doing for many years.

The tunnel comes out when mining the Yellow Pine pit is complete and the river is to be returned to a natural state, according to Perpetua’s plans.

The Forest Service analyzed the plans for its report and hired multiple third-party consultants for the review process.

“We did analysis on how the watershed condition indicators were affected,” Stephanie Theis told me at a Forest Service open house in December. She is a fisheries biologist with Stantec, based in California.

“Not just species, but also the habitat conditions, temperature, water quality, generally, things like that. And then we tied those back to the fish,” she said.

Theis also examined river temperatures and the ideal ranges of those temperatures on fish species, and the effects mining and the planned reclamation could have on those temperatures resulting in changes to acceptable habitats for fish.

Water temperature is what opponents of the mine have zeroed in on. Even though changes in the mining plan helped reduce the predicted temperatures, opponents contend stream temps during and after mining will still be too harsh - especially for threatened bull trout, which need colder water than other fish in the area.

“Those restored riparian areas and meadows are great until you realize that there isn't enough soil leftover after mining to actually support those plants,” said John Robison, Public Lands Director at the Idaho Conservation League.

Regrown trees and vegetation provide shade and buffer water temperatures. Robison and other conservationists say full recovery of those riparian areas isn’t likely for a century – and that’s if Perpetua can find enough topsoil during restoration.

The report from the forest service only shows about half the “growth media” needed for restoration after mining has been identified. Some of it comes from composting food and other organic materials at the mining site, according to the plan.

Rob Richardson is a geomorphologist with Rio Applied Sciences in Boise who worked on Perpetua’s rehabilitation plans. He told me in 2021 one of the ways they improved water temperatures was by adding a small lake over the backfilled yellow-pine pit.

“The lake, as shown by the existing USGS gauges, the Yellow Pine lake would buffer some of those maximum temperatures,” Richardson said. He explained the larger body of water acts a bit like a heat sink for the river below.

Bull trout might be the most sensitive, but steelhead, cutthroat and salmon also have a home in the East Fork South Fork Salmon River system. After all her research, Tice considers the potential long-term benefit of around 30 kilometers of reopened habitat for those fish justifies the short-term risk.

“There will be impacts to the fish. The benefits that will come are going to come long term,” she said. “You're going to see some temperature impacts in there, particularly in Meadow Creek. But Meadow Creek already currently has temperature impacts. It's already a warm system.”

Meadow Creek is still largely unaltered fish habitat, flowing right through the area where Perpetua plans its tailings storage facility. That will be a lined and buttressed area designed to prevent toxins left in the rock from seeping into the local watershed.

Changes to the creek needed to accommodate the tailings are one reason bull trout habitat is likely to be permanently reduced by mining activity.

But restoration plans also call for rebuilding a section of the site where a dam built to supply previous mining operations with hydropower failed in the mid-1960s. The East Fork Meadow Creek became known as 'blowout creek,' and the dam failure to this day allows a massive amount of sediment to make its way down the creek.

Repairing the spot where the dam washed out the hillside is incredibly helpful, Theis said.

"That's going to improve the gravel condition down below. It's going to improve the water quality condition below. And that's actually a really big benefit that they're going to see for the fish."

Chemicals used in gold mining, like sodium cyanide, will be contained in the ore processing facility Perpetua said. Water used in the mining process is also contained, cleaned and recycled.

Once mining operations wind down, cleanup and restoration will include lining the beds of repaired streams and tailings storage areas with impermeable material to protect water quality.

“The effectiveness of good stream restoration depends on good conceptualization, good engineering, good design, and probably most importantly, somebody out there actually doing the work who's an experienced hand that knows what they're doing,” said George Fennemore, Senior Environmental Manager with Stantec.

He’s worked on reclamation projects in Nevada and said Perpetua is working with established concepts and processes. He said that’s beneficial, given advances of mining practices in recent decades, even much publicized failures.

“The publicity of the failure is widely useful because then everybody can start to check, you know, what am I doing to prevent that from happening?”

Idaho Conservation League’s Robison doesn’t quite have the same faith in the process.

“They're also dismissing the intervening years of disturbance with potential for spills and things like that,” he said.

Perpetua’s Lyon said one substantial change to the plan is creating a new access road, to get mining traffic off Johnson Creek road and away from the river. The burnt log route creates a new path to the mine from Warm Springs Road by connecting an existing logging road and an old mining road with 14 miles of new road.

“Overall, this is a much safer route into site,” she said during a site tour last summer. “It also provides us that double access should we need it.”

The forest service analysis agreed, preferring the burnt log route in its analysis. Lyon said the path would be dismantled after mining and the new portion returned to nature. She also promoted the ability of the new route to keep Johnson Creek road open and less congested for recreational use during mining.

But that doesn’t eliminate risk. A study of 27 gold mining operations in the U.S. by Missoula, Montana-based Earthworks, referenced in this recent report, found a chemical or dangerous material spill at each one.

So far, Lyon says hundreds of fuel trucks have reached Stibnite without incident. During operations, traffic volume increases significantly, with many trucks hauling hazardous materials.

Perpetua is confident that it has prepared to avoid the worst possible situations while maximizing the extraction of critical minerals.

“If we're going to bring mining back and regain control, we as mining companies also have to take a new approach. And that new approach has to start with our communities and that transparency,” Lyon said. “Otherwise, we're not going to see mining come back to our country in a way that will help us preserve our supply chains.”

Robison wants the public to take a few minutes and review the environmental impact statement, and send feedback to the Forest Service.

“You don't have to be an expert, geologist or geochemist. You can just say, ‘Hey, I love to camp, I love to fish, I love to hike. How is my recreation going to be affected by this project?’” he said.

The deadline for the public to send comments to the Forest Service on its supplemental draft environmental impact statement is Jan. 10th. A final environmental impact statement is the next major step in the process; estimated for completion in the fall of 2023 – though most previous versions have been released well after initial timeline estimates.

Troy Oppie is a reporter and local host of 'All Things Considered' for Boise State Public Radio News.

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