"Something's really amiss up here," says Bill Uhl of Atlanta. The off-road driving instructor and longtime resident of the historic mining town is talking about something that most Boiseans would see as a mere trifle: an line of leaked oil from a single bulldozer that has been working on roads around his town. But this particular spill, to Uhl and some likeminded Atlantans, represents more than just oil. The reason: when he first discovered it on January 26, the oil ran from south of Atlanta right through downtown and onto a lot operated by the Atlanta Gold Company.
The company, which has proposed to open a massive "heap leach" gold mine in the hills just south of Atlanta, has been under public scrutiny since releasing its preliminary operational plans in 2004. If permitted by the necessary agencies, the mine will operate year-round for up to 10 years, processing 7,000 to 10,000 tons of ore per day through a leaching process that utilizes up to 4,000 gallons of liquid cyanide solution per minute. The 350-acre site would also be perched on a pair of drainages which both lead into the Boise River watershed, from which comes approximately 22 percent of Boise's municipal water supply.
Uhl, who has already seen one environmental disaster from mining in Atlanta, when the Talache Mine's tailings pond collapsed in 1997 and spilled thousands of tons of arsenic into the valley and nearby Middle Fork of the Boise River, responded quickly to the slightest hint of negligence by the mining company. First, he took pictures of all nearby oil puddles, dating each picture by including a newspaper. He then placed calls to the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality and the Forest Service. He also accompanied DEQ agent Dennis Owsley on a trip through the hills south of Atlanta on January 27, where the pair discovered that similar leaks were visible on approximately seven miles of roads.
"There was noticeable oil on the ground, leaking from equipment operating up there," Owsley says. "I went around with the complainant and took pictures of it." He took almost 60 photos of both oil and diesel fuel spills. In a DEQ memorandum dated January 31, Owsley cites "a trail of motor oil" down some corridors, "significant puddles" in other areas and "at least one gallon" of oil under the parked bulldozer in Atlanta. He also mentions evidence that the mine's environmental manager had witnessed the spills and not attempted to fix them or cease operations. In response, DEQ ordered Atlanta Gold to clean up all contaminated snow and ice and store it in a maintenance area.
Uhl, however, insists that such a cleanup never occurred. "Even after we called their hand, it was a week before [Atlanta Gold] did anything," he says. "They cleaned up what was on the lot, but not what went through town. They just brought the Cat off the hill, plowed the road and moved all the evidence into the snowbank."
When interviewed by BW on February 18, Atlanta Gold's environmental manager Pat Maley gave an account very different to both Uhl's and Owsley's. He insisted that he only found out about the leak when informed of it by the Forest Service on January 28. Maley also said that while he was in Atlanta on January 26, he saw no spills at that time. While acknowledging that some oil leakage did occur, and that evidence of it was still visible as of our interview, Maley estimated the total spillage that he was aware of at less than a gallon. He promised that all remaining oil-which he maintained was limited to five spots each approximately six inches wide-would be disposed of in accordance with applicable laws.
"We're going to do this right," he said. "We're very serious about it and we're going to do it right-'it' being every single thing we do up here."
At press time, DEQ had not yet sent an agent to Atlanta to ensure that Maley's claim of cleanup had been followed through on. Regardless of the longevity of this stain, however, concerned Atlantans like Uhl and Doris Helge say permanent damage has already been done to the mine's reputation.
"They just wanted to cover the whole thing up and say it was never a problem," Helge says. "I understand that people don't care about Atlanta, and I'm okay with that. But we're also talking about 22 percent of Boise's water supply here. They should care about that."
Adds Uhl, "When I see how they handled this, it makes me think they're not going to follow the rules. They've already shown they can't be trusted, and DEQ has shown they can't be trusted to police it. If gold prices go down, they'll be out of here in the blink of an eye-and we'll be left with the mess."