The Minnie Moore Mine near Bellevue has been operating since the 19th century, but its recent lease by a Georgia company has put Blaine County in the center of a statewide debate over the environmental impacts of gold mining.
Dutch Gold Resources, an Atlanta-based mining company, announced in September that it had leased the 265-acre mine and planned to begin exploratory drilling in October. Though some activity at the site was visible last week, the company did not return phone calls seeking information about the extent of that activity. In its press release, Dutch Gold Resources said it was leasing the property but was granted an option to buy from the owner, former county resident Carl B. Johnston.
The company stated that it would be looking to excavate gold and silver, but sampling has shown the soil is also rich in lead.
This announcement came shortly after the Idaho Conservation League had filed court challenges to mining operations by Atlanta Gold in the old mining district of Atlanta, and Mosquito Consolidated Gold Mines, which has a mine near Idaho City, over possible violations of the Clean Water Act.
"Basically, whenever you are talking about mining, the real impacts are water quality," said John Robison, public lands director for the organization.
Extraction of ore from mining sites can cause toxic chemicals, such as arsenic and cyanide, to leach into the water supply. Justin Hayes, spokesman for the organization, said soil-based arsenic is relatively benign unless disturbed by mining operations.
"As long as the arsenic is locked in the ground, you're good," he said. "[But] the moment you bring all of that up, even if you put it back in the pit, you've made it so water can permeate the rock."
Once water has passed through arsenic-laden rock, it can bring toxins back into the water supply. Robison said the Atlanta Gold Mine is of special concern due to its location near the headwaters of the Boise River, which provides the city with 20 percent of its drinking water.
According to sampling results released by Dutch Gold Resources, rock at the Minnie Moore site is also rich in lead, which Robison said could also be released into a water supply if steps to prevent it aren't taken.
Hayes said air contamination is a concern, as lead becomes highly mobile when disturbed.
"Lead doesn't stay where you put it," he said. "Lead is a big deal, and it can be a big deal not only for the site—let's keep kids out of the Minnie Moore waste pile, that's pretty straightforward—but it can also get into the air."
Dutch Gold Resources did not return repeated calls to determine whether the company has a plan to mitigate environmental impacts. Johnston could also not be reached for comment.
Environmental concerns can be prevented or reduced by proper design, Hayes and Robison said. If the mine takes proper precautions when excavating and disposing of waste rock, the organization is not necessarily opposed to mining as an industry. For example, Hayes said, the Idaho Cobalt Mine near Salmon follows procedures wholeheartedly supported by the ICL.
Like the Minnie Moore Mine, the Idaho Cobalt Mine is an underground project designed to have a small footprint. Hayes said mining in a tunnel is different from mining in an open pit in that the waste rock simply stays where it belongs—in the tunnel. In addition, like the Minnie Moore, the Idaho Cobalt Mine is in an area that has been a mining site for decades.
"[The company] didn't say, 'We're going to build this mine in this beautiful, pristine place,'" Hayes said. "They're not tearing down the Sistine Chapel."
Above all, the mine has a plan to prevent water contamination from excavation. Instead of leaving water-permeable tailings near the mine or even in the tunnel through which water can flow and pick up toxins, the company is combining the tailings with cement, forming a paste that later hardens.
"The paste is basically concrete," Hayes said. "They are making their waste rock solid again so it doesn't allow water to permeate through it."
However, unlike the Idaho Cobalt Mine or the Atlanta Gold Mine, the Minnie Moore Mine is on private property and therefore not subject to oversight from public agencies. For example, the Atlanta Gold Mine was required to post a $35,000 bond to provide for cleanup—though cleanup costs are now estimated to reach into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Dutch Gold would not be required to post a bond, Robison said.
"That's something to be concerned about, depending on the scope and scale of the project," he said.
Hayes said some regulations still must be followed to comply with state code. The mine must be safe for humans to work in, he said.
"At a basic level, there are mine health and safety regulations," he said. "A well-run mine that is safe for people is likely to be better for the environment."
There are also state regulations regarding groundwater quality that mines must comply with, though Hayes said these statutes mainly address after-the-fact impacts rather than prevent potential problems.
The mine could also run into permitting problems based on a 2005 decision from Blaine County District Judge Robert Elgee. Blaine County had taken Johnston and co-owner James Bilbray to court for possible violation of zoning violations. As the mine pre-dated the ordinances, Elgee ruled in favor of the defendants.
However, he stated in his decision, "nonconforming uses have no inherent right to be extended or enlarged" and the mine cannot be expanded without violating county ordinance.
Megan Stelma, code compliance specialist at the county, said the decision is "broad" and she is uncertain whether Dutch Gold would need to apply for additional permits for its operations. She said she would need to look at the company's proposal, but that the company had not applied for any additional permits or even contacted the county.
Press releases issued from the company over the past two months have been vague regarding the extent of the operations, mitigation plans or environmental impacts, apart from stating that the company is dedicated to "sustainable mining."
Also unclear is the potential for gold mining at the site. Hayes said cyanide is used in some gold ore processing methods, which poses yet another environmental risk.
Robison said the ICL will keep an eye on the project, though the organization won't have much legal recourse if the company does violate state or local statute.
"There are very few hooks on projects on private property," he said. "We have to trust the mining companies to do the right thing."
Katherine Wutz: email@example.com
Update: The previously posted photo was of the Queen of the Hills Mine, not the Minnie Moore property. The photo has since been changed.