Original Post ➡️
The Forest Service will be holding several open-house-style meetings to take public comment on a new document that discusses the impacts of a proposed mine in Valley County.
Published in October, the supplemental draft environmental impact statement for the Stibnite Gold Project is an over-1,000-page document detailing potential impacts of the gold and antimony mining project, whose site would be located east of McCall, as previously reported. Though a portion of the area was mined for antimony and tungsten during and following World War II, environmental, Indigenous, and business stakeholders are concerned about the impacts of the project and are calling for it to be halted, as previously reported.
The mining company, Perpetua Resources, has said those concerns are unfounded, and that its work on the site will include habitat restoration, as previously reported.
The Forest Service open house meetings will take place in McCall on Tuesday, Dec. 6, from 5:30-8 p.m. at the Best Western Plus; in Cascade on Wednesday, Dec. 7, from 5:30-8 p.m. at the American Legion Hall; and in Boise on Friday, Dec. 9, from 2-4 p.m. and 5:30-8 p.m at the Holiday Inn Express (Airport).
The Forest Service is also accepting comment through the project’s online page (fs.usda.gov/project/?project=50516), which the public can access by following the link and clicking on the “Comment/Object on Project” tab. Comments are due by Jan. 10, 2023.
A group of nonprofits — Save the South Fork Salmon, Idaho Rivers United, and the Idaho Conservation League — will be hosting comment writing workshops, where the public can learn about the project: in McCall on Dec. 5 from 6:30-7:30 p.m. at Idaho First Bank, and in Garden City on Dec. 8 from 6:30-7:30 p.m. at Cascade River Gear.
The Idaho Press caught up with representatives from Save the South Fork Salmon to hear their thoughts on the latest document. A representative of Perpetua Resources provided written comments.
Potential for environmental harm
Environmental and Indigenous stakeholders have expressed concern that mining and related activities on the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon River could harm fish populations. Fish species present in the watershed include endangered species such as Chinook salmon, steelhead trout, and bull trout, as well as the western slope cutthroat trout, Idaho’s state fish and a species of concern at the state level, as previously reported. Business stakeholders said that the project could adversely impact the local economy, both while the mine is in operation and following the completion of mining activities, as previously reported.
Representatives of the nonprofit environmental group Save the South Fork Salmon said that little about the impact of the project has changed in their view in the latest supplemental document, and they would still prefer that the mining project not happen.
When the area was first mined in the 1940s, workers rerouted the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon River around the area they intended to mine, said Mary Faurot, a board member with Save the South Fork Salmon and a retired fisheries biologist who worked for the U.S. Forest Service. But the river eventually resumed part of its natural flow, forming a lake in the old mining area that is now called the Yellow Pine Pit, she said. That lake is considered habitat for bull trout, though not the best habitat, she said.
But the grade between the lake and where the East Fork comes in from upstream is currently too steep for fish passage, though fish were once thought to have traveled upstream of the pit to access more habitat, Faurot said.
To help fish regain access to upstream habitat, Perpetua Resources has proposed building a fish tunnel over a mile long, Faurot said. But she is skeptical it would work, calling it “unproven science.”
The tunnel might be too dark, long, and steep to make it appealing to fish, she said. She is worried the mining company is staking too much on the belief that the passageway will expand access to upstream habitat for endangered species.
“That’s a real simple explanation,” Faurot said, “and if you look in the literature, which I have done — there is very little — this is an experimental thing that’s never been done in these geologies, for these fish (species).”
“Or for this length of the tunnel, too,” said Julie Thrower, an attorney with Save the South Fork Salmon.
But McKinsey Lyon, vice president of external affairs for Perpetua Resources, disagrees.
“The research shows our design will be an effective way to get fish migrating beyond the Yellow Pine Pit for the first time in over 80 years,” and the impact statement’s analysis supports their view, she said via email. Lyon also said, “It is important to note that the tunnel will be a temporary measure until we can fully restore the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon River and reconnect fish passage permanently.”
The term “temporary” is ill-fitting considering that pre-mining operations, mining operations, and restoration efforts could take 15 years or more to complete, Thrower said.
Though the Yellow Pine Pit offers fish habitat, Perpetua Resources’ plan is to drain the lake so that it can be mined again, Thrower said. Losing that habitat could further impact fish, she said.
Another major impact would be the filling in of 119 acres of wetland habitat, “resulting in a permanent loss of wetland function,” Faurot said, reading from the impact statement document.
But Lyon said the company plans to restore 237 acres of wetlands, the majority of which would happen at the site, resulting in “a net increase of 63% above existing conditions.”
How climate change could affect the project’s impacts and restoration efforts is also a concern, said Judy Anderson, a board member of Save the South Fork Salmon, in a written statement.
“Whether looking at air pollution, landslides, avalanches, risks of hazardous spills, lowered stream flows, fragmentation and loss of habitat, water temperature, depletion of groundwater or the difficulty of revegetation — all of these will be more probable and intensified with a changing climate,” Anderson said. “This calls into question any modeling or predictions that the SDEIS makes about the mine’s possible impacts and any promises made for mitigation.”
Recreational access could be limited
Another concerning aspect for Faurot and Thrower is that recreational access to the 14,221 acres of public land within the work area would be restricted for the duration of mining.
The supplemental environmental impact statement says that although the public would have some access via a road to travel through the project’s operational boundary, they would not have access to the site itself.
This includes tribes not being able to access fishing grounds, Faurot said.
Reasons for this could be that the air quality will be considered unhealthy due to arsenic and particulate matter in the air within the work boundary while mining activities are being performed, Faurot said. It could also be to protect people from mining activities, she said.
It is not clear whether recreational users wanting to travel through the site would need to get special permission from the mining company ahead of time, Thrower said.
Outside of winter, the public would have access to the road to traverse through the property, Lyon said. However, she said “the public would be restricted from leaving the public access road and accessing the project area due to concerns related to public and employee health and safety, and would be restricted from access to areas within the operational boundary.”
There may be times as well when road access would be temporarily closed due to mining activity near the road, and the company would use signage to inform the public about it, she said.
A group of business owners called the Idaho Headwaters Economic Study Group fundraised money to commission an independent study about the impacts of the mine on the economy of Valley County, Faurot said. Faurot is not a member of the group.
The group is aiming to have the executive summary of the study’s findings available to the public sometime next week, Faurot said.
Editor’s note: The times of the open houses have been updated to reflect updated information from the U.S. Forest Service.