Cleanup of contaminated tailings at Livingston Mill on the east slope of the White Cloud Mountains is the largest mine-related environmental cleanup in the 36-year history of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, but it won't be the last.
Abandoned mine and milling sites pepper Idaho and the West, and Sawtooth National Forest mining engineer Jeff Gabardi said several more projects are pending funding.
"There are a couple of other sites on the recreation area, but the priority regionally for funding—we're down the list a ways," he said.
Both the Hoodoo Mine and Carbonate Mill site are along Slate Creek, a tributary of the Salmon River east of Stanley. Hoodoo, a zinc and silver mine, is at the end of the drainage. Carbonate, a lead, zinc and silver milling site, is mid-way up the drainage.
Gabardi said the sites are not nearly as hazardous as Livingston Mill.
"We're all trying to vie for dollars as best as possible and get the most work done we can," Gabardi said. "We're really happy to see Livingston come to the top."
At Livingston Mill, the $1.2 million cleanup had not been scheduled until this summer in part because of a lack of funding and in part because of the sheer number and scope of abandoned mine sites throughout Idaho and the West.
That is the case with many old mines and mine-processing facilities. As they await federal cleanup funding, they continue to persist as health and pollution hazards.
"It takes a while for the bigger-risk ones, too," said Pat Trainor, Livingston Mill CERCLA on-scene coordinator. "It just takes time to get through the system."
Idaho Conservation League Public Lands Director John Robison said three weeks ago he had not heard of the pending cleanup at Livingston Mill, where arsenic and lead have been quantified at levels hazardous to human health. Robison added, however, that the project underscores the importance of reclaiming old mine sites throughout the West.
"It helps illustrate the dangers of the risk of contaminated water supplies with mining and the need to clean these things up," he said. "And it shows the need to bond these things so the polluters pay and not the taxpayers."
Robison used the Livingston Mill cleanup to stump for still-pending reforms to the General Mining Act of 1872. A reform bill passed the House on Nov. 1 by a 244-166 vote. The Senate held an initial hearing on reforms last Thursday, Jan. 24, although environmentalists are charging that the Senate bill is a watered-down version of what the House endorsed.
Reform efforts gained momentum since Democrats won control of Congress. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, was the bill's House sponsor.
"We have an opportunity to get mining law reform right, not simply endorse the status quo (in the Senate), which would amount to 'sham' reform," said Lauren Pagel, policy director for Earthworks, a West-wide mining reform group. "We have an opportunity to enact reforms that protect communities, create real funding for abandoned mine cleanup and reward responsible mining companies. We should not abandon that opportunity."
Earthworks criticized Sen. Peter Domenici, R-N.M., of laying out an agenda for less stringent reforms of the antiquated Mining Law. The group said the reforms proposed in the Senate last week would not adequately protect taxpayers, communities and the environment from the "potentially destructive" impacts of hardrock mining.
Robison said the reform bill passed by the House in November was on the right track.
"Part of it would assess a royalty on existing metal production," he said. "Other industries such as oil and gas and coal pay a royalty. But the hard-rock mining industry doesn't pay on precious metals removed from public lands."
The Mining Act has remained unchanged since it was signed by President Ulysses Grant in 1872. Since that time, $245 billion in precious metals has been removed from public lands. The law also allows companies to buy public land for as little as $5 per acre.
The law is the earliest example of an era in U.S. history when the government encouraged settlement of the West through legislation like the Homestead Act and railroad land grants.
The Mining Act elevates mining's importance above other uses of public land, making it difficult for agencies like the U.S. Forest Service to deny any mine applications, environmentalists say.
Mining companies argue that they comply with the existing federal law, as well as state regulations, and say many existing mines have set aside adequate bonds worth millions to cover responsible cleanup and reclamation once their operations close.
"This new reform effort would assess a royalty, and part of that royalty would be used to pay for abandoned mine cleanup," Robison said. "This is critically important because there are over 500,000 abandoned mines across the West. The EPA conducted a survey, and they found that 40 percent of watersheds in the West had their headwaters contaminated by mining waste."
Robison said he would like to say Livingston Mill is an isolated incident, but it is much more common than most people realize.
"And it affects our streams and drinking water," he said.
Gabardi indicated that inventory work is ongoing, and the number of sites slated for cleanup will probably continue to grow.
"The Ketchum District—we're starting to go back and look at some of the properties that kind of slop over onto the forest," he said. "As the inventory goes on, new ones are popping up. We're trying to work with the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality to get all these sites inventoried and on somebody's target for cleanup."