Doug Lindley/Idaho State Journal One of many phosphate mines in the Soda Springs area. There are 17 of the mines that are Super Fund sites.
Officials urge proper approach to mining phosphate in area - Pollution potential worries land, wildlife advocates
BY VANESSA GRIEVE
Flying in a six-passenger plane over Southeast Idaho, Marv Hoyt pointed to a cluster of trees — home of an active eagle’s nest.
Sometime soon, mining from the budding Blackfoot Bridge phosphate mine operation will come close to that nest, Hoyt said. The site is close to the Blackfoot River north of Soda Springs. Hoyt, the Idaho director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, said former mining practices have led to high levels of selenium in the valley’s water supply.
“We had a hydrologist look at that. What he said is if these mines just sit here next to the Blackfoot River and its tributaries, the selenium levels will increase and continue to do so for another 240 years,” Hoyt said. “If they clean it up, the streams and rivers themselves would be in compliance with water quality standards. Either clean up or continue to poison fish and domestic livestock.”
South of the Blackfoot Ridge Mine is a location near the Conda/Woodall Mountain Mine where hundreds of sheep died from selenium poisoning between 1997 and 2003, according to an Idaho Department of Environmental Quality memorandum.
A spokesman with the J.R. Simplot Company, which is now responsible for the Woodall Mountain Mine site, said the remediation process involves multiple steps and that an investigation started several years ago.
“We anticipate the initial action to improve environmental conditions for one part of the historical mine site will start in 2012,” said Simplot spokesman David Cuoio. “Further engineering study and analysis of site conditions will be needed to develop improvement plans for the entire mine site. This will take several additional years.”
The Greater Yellowstone Coalition hosted its 28th annual convention in Jackson Hole, Wyo., at the end of September. The convention featured guest speakers and field trips promoting protection of the greater Yellowstone area.
The cry to clean up historic phosphate mine sites is not new. To date, there are 17 mines in Southeast Idaho on the list of federal Superfund sites, with phosphate mining practices dating back to the early 1900s.
Hoyt said federal entities have tightened the permitting requirements on proposed mine sites and that it may have an effect on reducing future toxic releases, but still leaves the cleanup.
As reported in an Aug. 29 Journal article, Nu-West is in the process of reclamating the historic Georgetown Canyon Mine. The company has spent about $6 million cleaning up the plant site which sits on about 50 acres. Nu-West then plans to tackle cleanup on the approximately 300 acres of the mine site.
That is no easy task, costing millions of dollars per site. Hoyt said estimates are in the tens of millions of dollars and some other sites could cost over a hundred million dollars.
“There is no money in cleanup,” Hoyt said. “Companies are not going to make money to clean up these sites.”
In regards to the cleanup of the Woodall site, Simplot said because no improvement plans have been finalized by state and federal agencies that are “overseeing the work,” estimated costs are not yet available.
“Potential actions for environmental improvement include the reshaping of overburden piles, growing more native grasses and better stormwater management,” Cuoio said.
Flying around the region, Bruce Gordon said this “is some of the best habitat I’ve seen.”
Gordon is president of an advocacy group for the “protection of remaining wildlands and wildlife” called EcoFlight. The groups offers flights to politicians, media and concerned citizens to give an aerial perspective of environmental threats and to encourage environmental stewardship.
“This is the biggest proliferation of phosphate (mines) I’ve seen,” Gordon said about the numerous sites near Soda Springs. “The land speaks for itself.”
Some of the areas of concern include the Blackfoot River Wildlife Management Area and Huckleberry Basin.
Gordon is not opposed to mining for necessary material and he hopes people look at the big picture when it comes to capturing and utilizing natural resources.
“There’s got to be some consideration ... and maybe a balanced approach to this,” he said. “We use the products. I feel strongly it can be done properly.”
Simplot is in the process of developing an environmental impact statement for its proposed Dairy Syncline Mine, to be located at the upper end of Slug Creek in the Huckleberry Basin. Nu-West is also in the process of developing its EIS for the Rasmussen Valley Mine and is looking into permitting for Husky 1 and North Dry Ridge mines. Monsanto’s Blackfoot Ridge mine was permitted in August.
As of the end of September, the Environmental Protection Agency is taking public comment as it considers potentially expanding sectors covered under the Toxics Release Inventory Program. The program requires certain sectors to reveal to the public how much pollution is being released annually.
The program would grow to included iron ore mining, phosphate mining, solid waste combustors and incinerators, large dry cleaning, petroleum bulk storage and steam generation from coal and/or oil, according to a news release.
The addition of these sectors would mean communities would have access to comprehensive toxic chemical releases and other waste management information from those and other sectors already included under Section 313 of the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act of 1986.
At a glance
The Environmental Protection Agency is encouraging public discussion on expanding the Toxics Release Program to include iron ore mining, phosphate mining, solid waste combustors and incinerators, large dry cleaning, petroleum bulk storage and steam generation from coal and/or oil.
For more information, visit www.regulations.gov/exchange/topic/trisectorsrule.