Fred Coriell, Save the South Fork Salmon, Inc., (208) 315-3630
John Robison, Idaho Conservation League, (208) 345-6933 x 213
Nick Kunath, Idaho Rivers United, (208) 908-9232
Bonnie Gestring, Earthworks, (406) 546-8386
Marc Fink, Center for Biological Diversity, (218) 464-0539
MCCALL, Idaho — A planned open-pit cyanide vat leach gold mine in Idaho’s Salmon River Mountains would jeopardize public health and clean water, harm endangered species, violate Indigenous treaty rights, and permanently scar thousands of acres of public land in the headwaters of the South Fork Salmon River, a coalition of local and national conservation groups said.
In over 300-pages of comments submitted Monday to the U.S. Forest Service, the groups urged the Service to reject the proposed Stibnite Gold Project (SGP), which would resume mining activities in the Stibnite Mining District on the Payette National Forest. Instead, the groups said, officials should accelerate clean-up efforts at the site, which is an eligible Superfund site, polluted from decades of historic cyanide leach gold mining and milling.
The mining company, Perpetua Resources, wants to double the size of the historic mine site to 3,265 acres and excavate three open-pit mines. The proposed Yellow Pine pit would extend more than 700 feet beneath the riverbed of the East Fork South Fork Salmon River, requiring the river to be rerouted through a concrete tunnel during mining activities until the pit is eventually backfilled with mine waste.
The project also requires constructing an industrial ore-processing facility, burying pristine bull trout habitat beneath 100 million tons of toxic mine tailings, building miles of new access roads and electrical transmission lines through inventoried roadless areas, and providing on-site housing and services for hundreds of workers. The estimated life of the mine is 20-25 years.
“It becomes harder and harder to accept this proposed mine as a ‘restoration’ project when one takes a close look at what is being proposed,” said Nick Kunath of Idaho Rivers United. “It’s no secret that the site is in need of help but many of the mitigation measures struggle to maintain even baseline conditions that exist today, let alone restore the site to pre-mine conditions. In particular, stream temperatures are expected to be elevated above baseline in many reaches for over 100 years. This is particularly problematic given the sensitive nature of bull trout and Chinook salmon and the impacts that increased stream temperatures have on their complex life cycles and general risk of mortality.”
The South Fork Salmon watershed is a cornerstone of efforts to restore threatened Chinook salmon, steelhead trout, and bull trout. The Forest Service says the South Fork Salmon River contains the “most important remaining habitat for summer chinook salmon in the Columbia River basin.”
The Forest Service’s 2022 Supplemental Draft Environmental Analysis said the Stibnite Gold Project would permanently degrade habitat for threatened bull trout and may permanently displace Chinook salmon from the analysis area. These fish, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act, are an integral part of the watershed ecosystem of this major tributary to the second longest free-flowing river in the lower 48 states, the Wild and Scenic Salmon River.
“While Perpetua has been telling the public that this is a restoration project, when we actually read through the environmental analysis, we learned that the proposal would severely degrade habitat for species like bull trout and wolverine instead of improve it,” said John Robison with the Idaho Conservation League.
“The Forest Service never even considered an alternative that presumed a fully cleaned-up site under pre-existing CERCLA obligations without expanded mining activities,” said Fred Coriell, board member for Save the South Fork Salmon. “Because the pit backfills require waste rock from the lowest grade gold deposits that won’t be excavated until the end of the mine’s life, any comprehensive clean-up under the proposed plan is inextricably intertwined with the project’s profitability. Betting the ecological viability of the South Fork Salmon River watershed on the price of gold twenty years from now is a risk we’re not willing to accept.”
The proposed project area is adjacent to the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area and part of the historic homelands of the Nez Perce Tribe, who have treaty rights to fish, hunt, gather, and pasture at traditional places, including the operational boundaries of the mine and the South Salmon watershed. The Tribe, federal and state agencies have spent millions of dollars on restoration and research in the Stibnite area and the South Fork to help improve water quality and ecosystems ravaged from previous mining.
“We can’t repeat the mistakes of the past and let the Salmon River’s South Fork and its critical salmon and bull trout habitat be sacrificed for gold and ammunition,” said Marc Fink, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The focus needs to be on cleaning up the historic toxic mining pollution, not making matters worse with decades more industrial mining.”
“Cyanide leach gold mines have an abysmal track record for water pollution, and Stibnite appears to be no different,” said Bonnie Gestring, Northwest program director at Earthworks. “Despite the company’s promises for restoration, the environmental review predicts that the mine plan will leave a pit lake polluted by arsenic and mercury.”
In submitted comments, the groups also said the mine will risk the health and safety of nearby communities because the project involves hauling 3,000 heavy truckloads of hazardous materials on highways and backroads every year. The mine also adds significant, new sources of hazardous air pollution and greenhouse gases, contributing to climate change. Additional threats include the potential for permanent water pollution by toxic metals and cyanide spills.
According to a recent economic study of the mine’s effects, any potential employment economic benefits from the mine would be canceled out if environmental degradation from mining causes just a 2% decline in visitor-recreation and non-labor income sectors.
Coalition members include Save the South Fork Salmon, Idaho Conservation League, Idaho Rivers United, Earthworks, Center for Biological Diversity, American Rivers, American Whitewater and Winter Wildlands Alliance.