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For the week of June 21 through June 27, 2000

Cyanide solution

Hecla Mining Co. prepares for multimillion dollar cleanup


"We’re spending a lot of time, money and energy to make sure that the issue is resolved. Enough people are looking at this, believe me. It will be safe."

Hecla spokeswoman Vicki Veltkamp


"Minimizing the environmental impact of Grouse Creek has been a major consideration for us throughout the project construction and will continue to be a major focus through the mine’s life and reclamation."

—Hecla Mining Co.’s chief executive, Art Brown, according to an August 16, 1995 Hecla press release.


By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer

Hecla Mining Co.’s Grouse Creek gold mine was supposed to be a state-of-the-art paragon of how large-scale, modern-day mining can be done in harmony with the environment.

At the mine’s dedication on Aug. 12, 1995, in front of 450 Idahoans, then-Rep. Mike Crapo applauded the mine’s developers for their care of the area’s natural setting, according to a Hecla press release dated Aug. 16 of the same year.

Hecla chief executive Art Brown called the mine an "environmentally safe, efficient mine" during the celebration, the press release also stated.

That was then.

In response to leaks in the mine’s 500 million gallon tailings pond that resulted in cyanide contamination of area streams, Hecla will be required to begin draining the pond at the mine site in the Salmon River Mountains north of Stanley by May 1, 2001, Idaho’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and Forest Service officials have announced.

The Grouse Creek Mine tailings pond. Express photo by Greg StahlHecla Mining Co. will have to begin draining its 500 million gallon tailings pond, pictured above, at the Grouse Creek Mine by May 1, 2001. Express photo by Greg Stahl

 

Presently the contamination is contained, and there is no threat to wildlife or humans, DEQ, Forest Service and Hecla officials agreed.

On April 26 of 1999, Coeur d’ Alene-based Hecla reported high cyanide levels in Jordan Creek, downstream from the now-closed gold mine, to the DEQ. Jordan Creek is a tributary of the Yankee Fork, which flows into the Salmon River downstream from Stanley.

Piquing environmentalists’ interest on the issue, the Yankee Fork and Salmon River contain spawning habitat for endangered Chinook salmon and are also home to endangered bull trout.

The pond’s toxic waters—containing cyanide used in the gold extraction process as well as mercury, silver, copper, cadmium and other heavy metals—will be treated using filtering and precipitation processes. They will then be discharged into the Yankee Fork, according to DEQ regional administrator Jim Johnston.

Levels of permitted toxicity for discharged waters will be set by the DEQ and Forest Service, but activists fear the permitted levels will be too high.

Tom Blanchard. Express photo by Greg StahlBoulder White Cloud Council mining activist Tom Blanchard explains his concerns associated with the Grouse Creek Mine, north of Stanley, as he overlooks the mine’s open pit. Express photo by Greg Stahl

 

"This mine was supposed to be state-of-the-art," Boulder White Cloud Council mining activist Tom Blanchard said during a visit to the mine two weeks ago. "I’d like to see a state-of-the-art solution."

Blanchard, who called the mine "the poster child for mining reform," spoke as he surveyed the vast open pit and the tailings pond from high on the side of neighboring Estes Mountain. Boats navigated the toxic pond’s waters, and an aeration system, designed to accelerate the breakdown of cyanide, spouted water in the thin mountain air.

The proposed treatment and discharge processes would treat pond water and then dilute the discharge using the Yankee Fork in a so-called mixing zone—a several-hundred-foot-long section of the river downstream from the discharge point.

Johnston said the specific levels that will have to be met are not yet set.

"We’re in the process of trying to determine proper treatment to ensure proper water quality issues and to ensure wildlife standards," Johnston said.

Hecla spokeswoman Vicki Veltkamp also offered reassuring words.

"We’re spending a lot of time, money and energy to make sure that the issue is resolved," she said. "Enough people are looking at this, believe me. It will be safe."

Blanchard isn’t satisfied with such answers.

"The alternative is to get it to [higher] water quality standards before they get it into the stream," he said, calling the Yankee Fork and Salmon River "an already tortured environment."

"How many times do we have to lose again and again?" Blanchard asked. "We’re spending millions to clear the way for salmon to recover, but we’re doing this kind of thing. We can make this water clean. It’s just a matter of money."

Johnston said, however, that money is not an issue. He also said that Hecla will be completely responsible for the "multimillion dollar" cleanup of the pond.

Hecla spokeswoman Vetlkamp estimated that cleanup of the pond will run Hecla roughly $30 million.

In studies carried out by Hecla and confirmed by a DEQ chemist, the filtering and precipitation processes are best suited to draining the pond because of the volume of water the system will need to move, Johnston said.

"We’re looking at discharging 800 to 900 gallons per minute in order to exceed what’s going into the pond," Johnston said. "That eliminated some of the things we were trying to look at."

Draining the pond, said Johnston, must adhere to the May 1, 2001 start date, which is set in a consent agreement between DEQ and Hecla. Hecla vice president Bill Booth signed the agreement on April 3, one day before DEQ state administrator Stephen Allred did.

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Shortly after reporting the contamination last spring, Hecla set up a system of pumps and wells to recirculate cyanide-contaminated springs and seeps back into the mine’s holding pond.

Since the pumps were turned on, cyanide levels in Jordan Creek "have dissolved to almost [non-detectable levels]," said U.S. Forest Service Grouse Creek coordinator Pat Trainor in an interview last week.

The mine is almost entirely positioned on Forest Service land, Trainor said, and the federal agency will oversee the cyanide cleanup effort under the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation Liability Act (CIRCLA).

CIRCLA, Trainor said, will help set water quality standards by which treated water will ultimately be discharged into the Yankee Fork.

DEQ officials, Forest Service personnel and Hecla officials met for three days last week to discuss how to proceed on the issue, Johnston said, adding that the parties involved are still trying to iron out details surrounding the treatment and discharge processes.

Veltkamp said Hecla, which has been in existence for 109 years, is currently operating four mines in Nevada, Venezuela, Idaho and Alaska.

Hecla spent $100 million to build Grouse Creek, Veltkamp said, and has lost, so far, $148 million in operations and cleanup efforts.

"The environment is still a large concern with us," she said, "which is why we’re working so hard to clean it up."

 

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