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Meet the New Mine

Gold and green unite to reform impotent cyanide rules

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Don't underestimate the power of "Not in my back yard."

When it was announced late last year that two companies were targeting Idaho as the future site of cyanide-leaching gold mines, public response was swift and intense. The larger of the companies, Atlanta Gold Corp., hasn't yet turned in its application, but the smaller, Desert Mineral Mining, which is planned to be located just east of Boise, bore the brunt as concerned citizens and local organizations packed public meetings and utilized the public comment process to a level that shocked Bruce Schuld, Idaho Department of Environmental Quality mining project coordinator.

"We've never received this degree of public participation in a public process," Schuld told BW at the time. "The comments that the public brought forth were actually things we hadn't even considered."

That level of public scrutiny prompted Jack Lyman, executive director of the Idaho Mining Association, to take pre-emptive action to protect his industry. "We've seen it before--somebody comes in, they spend $15 or $20 million, and then somebody says, 'Oh my goodness, there might be a mine going in here. Let's change the rules,'" Lyman said. "We thought we ought to take care of that now."

One such case occurred in Montana in 1998, when voters ruled to ban cyanide-based mining statewide after decades of environmental degradation. A mining company, Canyon Resources Corp., was in the application process for its cyanide permit at the time of the vote, and later sued the state for violating its constitutional property rights without compensation. The Montana State Supreme Court dismissed the company's case last month.

Of such scenarios in Idaho, Lyman said, "That won't happen now." The reason: He helped bring about legislation earlier this year demanding reform of Idaho's cyanide-based mining rules, some of the most archaic in the U.S. This new legislation was echoed by a petition to the DEQ by the Idaho Conservation League, which also called for a reform to Idaho's rules.

Both the legislation and the petition were approved earlier this year, and for several months representatives from both sides met regularly with state agencies, representatives of Idaho towns and industry and concerned citizens to hammer out a new rule system that would finally bring Idaho up to industry-accepted standards--not to mention protecting Idaho citizens both from pollution and from footing the bill for mining disasters. The final version was approved by the boards of the departments of Lands and Environmental Quality last month, and according to those involved, the result is a resounding success ... sort of.

"Nobody that participated got everything they wanted," Lyman said of the rules. "I don't know that anybody is 100 percent satisfied with the end product, but everybody is going to support it."

Conservation League program director Justin Hayes was similar in his deadpan acceptance. "[Idaho is] not the best, but we're no longer the worst," he told BW. "These are all steps in the right direction, they just didn't go far enough."

Only Schuld, who will present the rule changes to the Idaho Legislature this January for final approval, was unwavering in his enthusiasm. "These are the best rules in the western U.S.," he said. "I'm thrilled."

A few of the major innovations in the proposed rules include:

Bonding: Currently, the maximum financial assurance Idaho can demand from a cyanide operation is $100,000, to be used for cleanup and site closure if the facility goes belly-up. However, as was seen at the Grouse Creek gold mine near Stanley in the mid-1990s, repairing damage caused by a defunct mine can cost tens of millions of dollars. According to the new rules, the bond amount for any facility would be increased to 110 percent of the estimated closing costs of the mine.

"'True cost' is a huge step in the right direction," said Hayes. "The rules definitely raise the bar for companies that want to mine here."

The new rules also shift the responsibility for bonding mines from the Department of Environmental Quality to the Department of Lands. The Department of Lands already handles reclamation bonding--the money a mining company must have to restore its entire mine site after ceasing operations. It makes sense, then, for the same department to hold bonds for closure-by-bankruptcy, said IDL deputy director Denise Mills. But Mills admits the department would nonetheless be hard-pressed to meet the demands of the new rules.

"We're not a water quality protection agency," she said. "Our staff doesn't have the technical background that is truly appropriate for the very complex chemistry and biological reactions of these processes. We're going to need training, we're going to have to suck up the resources, whether it's from DEQ or hiring consultants to do work for us."

Another novel aspect to the proposed rules is a requirement that the amount for which a mine is bonded be reviewed periodically to ensure it is accurate. The mining company will foot the bill for the review, as well as for much of the cost of its initial application--which is currently picked up by DEQ. Both charges, according to Schuld, will help to keep Idaho free of frivolous applications from companies who "just want a permit so they can farm their investors."

Water: Concerns over the potential threat cyanide poses to Idaho's water dominated the public comments on Desert Mineral Mining's application last year, as well as the public dialogue concerning Atlanta Gold--especially since the latter mine is proposed to sit directly over the Boise River watershed, the source of 20 percent of Boise's municipal water supply. But Boise City Water Quality Manager Robin Finch, who represented both the City of Boise and the Association of Idaho Cities in the rulemaking, said the new rules do much to appease the concerns of Idaho's towns.

"We feel pretty comfortable that the process would now substantially solve a lot of the historic legacy problems that were associated with mining," Finch said. "We think where there is appropriate protection for surface and ground water protection and appropriate bonding for closure of the project, that project can move forward."

According to the proposed rules, companies would be required to provide on the front end a water management system capable of handling water both from mining processes and other sources like storms, floods, snowmelt or springs--even after the mine closes. In addition, they would be required to provide contingency plans detailing how their impoundment systems--which hold the cyanide-laced mining tailings--would withstand natural disasters like fires or earthquakes. Such safeguards are not explicitly demanded in the current rules.

"We were waiting for something like Atlanta Gold to bring these issues from the backcountry to the fore-country, essentially," Hayes said. "I don't think the population centers in Idaho understood the deficiencies in our rules and the threat it posed to them, but Atlanta Gold really snapped things into focus legislatively and administratively."

Reclamation: The process of reclamation is perhaps where the most fundamental change are in the proposed rules. Currently, to get a permit to mine with cyanide, a company must turn in a plan--period.

"It doesn't say when, how, what it's supposed to address--anything like that," Schuld said. But according to the proposed rules, a mine's permanent closure plan must be detailed enough to give a price to every necessary task. That cost is then used in formulating the financial assurance bond before the project is even undertaken. Such a step may seem obvious to those outside the mining industry, but such is the vague state of Idaho's current law. And according to Lyman, the reforms are as welcome to the mining industry as to conservationists.

"If someone comes in to invest in an Idaho gold mine, they need to be able to plug in the numbers and make an informed decision," he said. "We always like a little flexibility, but we really need is certainty. We need to know what is expected of us, and we need to have some certainty that if we do what is expected of us, we'll get approvals. That's what these rules do."

To read the new rules, follow the link at www.boiseweekly.com.