YELLOW PINE, Idaho — A gold mining company has begun the initial cleanup of a historic mine site in the Central Idaho mountains where it hopes to resume mining operations.
Perpetua Resources, formerly known as Midas Gold, is seeking approval from the federal government to restart mining operations at Stibnite Gold Project about nine miles east of Yellow Pine, a remote town of 32 people nestled in a forested, mountainous section of Valley County. The mine is situated just outside the border of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, which is home to salmon, wolverines, wolves, bears and abundant wildlife.
Perpetua Resources has submitted a Plan of Restoration and Operations and several revisions (the latest is Modified Proposed Action 2, or ModPRO2 and available on Perpetua’s website) that outline the company’s plans and proposals.
Perpetua wants to reopen pit mining for gold and antimony, a chemical element found in minerals that Perpetua says can be used to produce liquid metal batteries and ammunition. The company has proposed building a new access road to the mine site and says it wants to clean up some of the historical mine waste from previous operations as it resumes mining.
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But not every stakeholder is on board with the company’s proposals. The Nez Perce Tribe and Idaho Conservation League have raised concerns about the size and scale of the project – especially its reach into previously undisturbed, pristine land.
The next step in the permitting process is for the U.S. Forest Service to release a supplemental draft environmental impact statement, which Perpetua officials expect could happen in the next month or so.
In interviews and in its promotional materials, Perpetua describes the mine site as one of the top 10 largest gold deposits in the United States. The company believes it can recover more than 4.8 million ounces of gold and 148 million pounds of antimony, Perpetua Resources Vice President of External Affairs Mckinsey Lyon said during a tour of the mine earlier this month. The company believes the total cost of the project could be $1.1 billion and include three years of construction and 12 to 15 years of mining, Lyon said. It would be open pit mining, where material is blasted and ore is transported in large haul trucks to a processing facility. Upon operation, Perpetua says it could directly employ 500 people at the mine, which would include housing, where employees would work shifts of two weeks on and two weeks off, Lyon said.
How would the mining company clean up the historic damage?
Mining in the area dates back to 1899 and the Thunder Mountain Gold Rush. It ramped up over the following decades and in connection with World War II, the Bradley Mining Co. produced tungsten, a rare metal, for the war effort, Lyon said. More than 1,000 people moved to Stibnite, where there was a school, dance hall and bowling alley. Mining continued into the 1990s, and much of the mining occurred before environmental protection laws were in place, Lyon said.
As a result, the water in rivers and creeks is polluted with arsenic and sediment, the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon River now flows into an abandoned open pit mine and Perpetua Resources has identified 10.5 million tons of waste and mine tailings at the site.
During a tour of the mine this month with the Idaho Capital Sun, salmon were swimming just at the edge of the pit.
“This entire valley is actually full of tailings,” Lyon said. “Our vision was if you are going to mine you also have to bring back value to the community by cleaning it up”
Given the damage and pollution resulting from 100 years of mining, Lyon said it will take millions of dollars and a commitment on an industrial scale like Perpetua is proposing to make a difference. Without it, Lyon said the abandoned mining site may sit like it is without any guarantee of any improvements to water quality or the rivers that are home to salmon and bull trout.
“We feel like this is an opportunity to get restorative benefits back to the site as soon as possible,” Lyon said.
Lyon and Perpetua officials say modern mining is different and they won’t make the same mistakes that other companies did that polluted the rivers and land around the mine. Before it can earn a permit to begin mining or start construction, Perpetua must secure millions of dollars in financing for financial assurances that will be set aside to ensure the cleanup and reclamation of the mine is completed once mining is finished, even if Perpetua cannot complete the work itself.
Perpetua and its contractors started initial cleanup efforts of Hennessey Creek in July. The creek has been losing water and flowing through waste, and crews are lining it to protect the water, Lyon said. Next summer, plans call for removing waste from the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon River. If construction and mining begins, Perpetua plans to build a fish passage tunnel that would reroute the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon River away from the abandoned Yellow Pine Pit that it now flows through, which blocks fish.
“Salmon are now blocked from 20 miles of their historic habitat,” Lyon said.
Eventually, Perpetua plans to backfill the Yellow Pine Pit and start rebuilding the river about 12 years into the project.
What are conservationists and Native American Tribes saying about the mine plan
Leaders of the Nez Perce Tribe and conservation groups have voiced concerns about Perpetua’s proposal to resume mining at Stibnite Mine.
They are concerned the size and scale of Perpetua’s proposal is larger than historic mining operations, they point out Perpetual’s project would extend into pristine, undisturbed areas that have not been fouled by historic mining and they worry about the impact on salmon habitat.
The mine was built within the historic homeland of the Nez Perce Tribe after the tribe ceded land to the federal government in an 1855 treaty. In an October 2020 letter to Payette National Forest forest supervisor Linda Jackson, then-chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe’s Executive Committee Shannon F. Wheeler wrote that the 1855 treaty secures the tribe’s right to fish, hunt, gather and travel in their usual accustomed places. Those rights, Wheeler wrote, represent a guarantee of the tribe’s ability to preserve its culture and identity.
“The Tribe has endured immeasurable harm over the last two centuries as a result of misguided federal policies, exploitative resource extraction and land management practices, and broken treaty promises that have ignored our culture and threatened our way of life,” Wheeler wrote. “Gold mining has played a particularly egregious and lasting role in this ignominious history of hardship and loss.”
“Given gold mining’s legacy of dispossession and wanton destruction of our land and resources, the Tribe is committed to preventing these harms from ever again revisiting our people,” Wheeler added.
Efforts to reach members of the Nez Perce Tribe’s Executive Committee were unsuccessful.
John Robison, public lands director for the Idaho Conservation League, said conservationists have concerns as well.
“The East Fork South Fork Salmon River is a special place that historically has been one of the most important habitats for summer chinook spawning in the entire Columbia River basin,” Robison said in a phone interview. “We found some really big concerns regarding adverse effects to fisheries, particularly with increases to the temperature.”
“Perpetua is talking a lot about restoring fish passage to the area — and we all want to see fish return — but one of the issues is if temperatures are too elevated it makes the area unusable to the fish we are trying to restore,” Robison added.
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Perpertua’s plans call for 51% of its project to be on previously disturbed areas affected by prior mining, Lyon said. But 49% of the new mining project would extend into areas that have not been previously disturbed by mining.
“If Perpetua had a plan focused on the existing, disturbed areas and reclaimed and restored those areas as they were mining, this would be a very different conversation,” Robinson said. “Instead, half of the project area is in pristine, undisturbed areas. Their plan for handling mining waste, for handling leftover mining waste from previous operations, is to excavate it, mix it with other mining waste they produce and deposit it in a pristine river valley. That doesn’t sound like restoration to me.”