On Thursday, January 20, a vocal group of approximately 50 ranchers, landowners, activists, law enforcement officials and concerned citizens gave a tepid appraisal of a proposed gold mine to be located 15 miles east of Boise.
The public meeting was prompted by a barrage of letters and e-mails to Idaho Department of Environmental Quality mining project coordinator Bruce Schuld about the application of California-based Desert Mineral Mining to construct a cyanide-leaching gold mill along Blacks Creek Road. Accordingly, the meeting stretced to almost four hours as the audience sho dozens of questins at the company's CEO, operations manager and environmental consultant. The topics raised by the speakers--only two of whom were supportive of the mine--ranged widely from fears over the mining company's financial stability to the impact of mining operations on migratory birds to range fires and even to the possibility that the mine's chemical supplies could be raided by local methamphetamine producers.
But among the many points brought up, three were returned to repeatedly by the remarkably patient and well-prepared audience: First, fears about the lack of a demonstrable track record for both Desert Mineral and the mine's proposed technology; second, the company's inability thus far to identify a specific water source for the mine; and third, concerns over the installation of a leak detection system in the mine's cyanide waste pit.
"Your project is very much in a state of flux," noted Idaho Conservation League associate John Robison, citing among other concerns the failure of Desert Mineral to describe in their application any safety features that would control chemical spills from the company's unique "Thompson Mill" system. The self-contained, portable system, invented by an 86-year-old partner in Desert Mineral referred to by CEO Dan Terzo as "Doc Thompson," is planned to process approximately 25,000 tons of ore over two to five years. It would operate 24 hours a day for 300 days a year by a diesel-powered generator, using a cyanide solution to isolate gold dust from rock that has been ground into a talcum-powder consistency, all within a small closed chamber--as opposed to large "heap" leaching operations such as the one currently being proposed by Canada-based Atlanta Gold in Atlanta.
Terzo admitted to the audience that he knew of no other Thompson Mill systems in operation in the United States. He quickly added, without giving a specific example, that the system has been successful in other countries. To audience members like Ric Holmes of Atlanta, who attended the public meeting because he hoped the Thompson Mill could provide a less risky alternative to what is being proposed by Atlanta Gold, that answer was not encouraging.
"There are all these machines, and they couldn't name one of them?" Holmes said after the meeting. "I was absolutely shocked. Whether they hadn't done their homework or just had no answers, we simply have no idea what we're dealing with."
That ambivalence was not shared by the mine's loudest voice of support at the meeting, local attorney and Idaho Lottery Commission member Mel Fisher, who was in attendance with Idaho Mining Association executive director Jack Lyman. Fisher, who co-owns the patented claims on which Desert Mineral hopes to operate, labeled the mill "The best system I have ever seen." He further added that despite the fears of local critics, "This is no Atlanta Gold."
But like the residents of Atlanta, the neighbors of the Blacks Creek site continue to worry about their water--both its usage and the potential to compromise its purity. Tim Collias, a landowner with a drinking water well within two miles of the site, called it "a valuable commodity" to everyone in the region. Arlen Demeyer, a rancher on Blacks Creek Road, provided intricate calculations of the amounts of water that will be spent simply in keeping the dust under control at the site, estimating it to be in the hundreds of thousands of gallons. And Holmes, after citing a quote from the Idaho Department of Water Resources in last week's Boise Weekly, stating that Desert Mineral had no water rights for the proposed property and no way to purchase them, summed up both neighbors' concerns in a pair of questions.
"Where is your water coming from?" he asked. "Where? How much? It's substantial, and you know it." Terzo replied to Holmes' question that Desert Mineral is in negotiations with nearby ranchers to buy water and truck it to the site, where it will be stored in large tanks. No mention of this plan is made in the company's application.
As for fears of cyanide leaking into groundwater around the mine, Blacks Creek resident Gordon Sorensen expressed the overriding sentiment, saying, "You pollute my well, my home, my investment is worthless."
Sorensen's concern, repeated by other landowners and the Idaho Conservation League, were addressed by the mining company's environmental consultant Rick Richins. Richins, a 28-year mining veteran who has overseen large operations in Alaska and New Zealand, explained that public outcry alone had caused the company to change its stance concerning a leak detection system on the site.
"We do intend to include a leak detection system in the [tailings] pond," he said, contradicting his previous written claim that a system was "unnecessary and unwarranted" given that the mine's waste would be treated with bleaching agents to reduce its toxicity to drinking water standards.
However, as of press time, according to DEQ coordinator Schuld, Desert Mineral still "has not submitted any engineering designs and specs including that system." Since such a system is required by Idaho law he added, "There is no time left to negotiate about it or anything else. They've got to get that into us in a timely manner, or otherwise I can't guarantee that we're going to process their application."
Schuld, who moderated the meeting for DEQ, also said he thought the dialogue at the event had been productive for the skeptical audience. "I think people learned a lot about the company, even if [Desert Mineral] was sometimes unresponsive," he said, "and they learned a lot about the proposal."
Schuld will meet with the operations manager of DMM in coming weeks to address, point by point, the 56 pages of public comment he has received thus far as well as any that arrive before the February 4 deadline. DEQ's subsequent decision to accept or reject the proposal will be announced by March 4.