For the week of April 28, 1999  thru May 4, 1999  

Conservationists appeal Thompson Creek Mine decision

Concern centers on threat of acid mine drainage to Salmon River

Express Staff Writer

Citing concerns over the Salmon River’s long-term health, two conservation groups last week appealed a recent U.S. Forest Service approval of an interim operating plan for the Thompson Creek Mine.

The open-pit mine, Idaho’s largest, is located five miles from and 2,000 feet above the Salmon River, near Clayton.

The revised Supplemental Plan of Operation (SPOO), which addresses the potential for acid mine drainage problems from the mine, has been in the works for several years but has not yet been approved.

The appeal was sent to Forest Service chief Michael Dombeck and asks that the March 1 record of decision approving the mine’s 1999 operations, pending the completion of the SPOO, be rescinded.

"We’ve asked chief Dombeck to send the decision back to the regional forester in Ogden, Utah to correct huge gaps in the analysis," said Roger Flynn, an attorney representing the Idaho Conservation League and the Boulder-White Clouds Council, the appellants.

Flynn said he did not know how long his review of the appeal would take but expressed interest in resolving the matter this summer.

Scott Brown, state issues director for the Idaho Conservation League, argued that the Forest Service has not addressed his group’s concerns or those of other federal agencies and independent experts.

"Our goal is to protect the Salmon River from acid mine pollution," Brown said.

The Thompson Creek Mine has been operating on Forest Service land since 1983. The mine’s officials estimate that the mine will remain active for another 15 years.

According to the Intermountain Region’s regional locatable minerals specialist Tom Buchta, the Forest Service adequately addressed the mine’s acid drainage potential and will argue the case based on information it compiled for the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement approval.

But the environmentalists say the potential for acid mine drainage was not adequately met.

"After waiting four years for a new plan, it’s incomprehensible that the Forest Service refused to analyze environmental impacts from the mine’s giant, mile-long, 1,200-foot open pit," said Boulder-White Clouds Council conservationist Lynne Stone.

"The agency says it will look into the pit later," Stone said. "This flawed logic smacks of an apple pie recipe that leaves out the apples. Unfortunately, the (Forest Service’s) recipe short-changes the Salmon River, five tributaries, four threatened fish species and central Idaho’s clean-water based economies."

Buchta said the Forest Service has adequate information of the pit’s water quality for the agency to make the decision.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have also raised concerns about potential impacts from the mine.

According to the EPA’s comments on the draft and final Environmental Impact Statements (EISs), uncertainties over the long-term stability of the mine’s 730-foot-high tailings dam, one of the tallest earthen dams in the world, are too great to merit approving the decision.

The EPA also cited concerns over the mine’s proximity to the Salmon River. Its EIS comments recommended further analysis of the tailings impoundment’s stability, better earthquake contingency plans, a pit water study, specific reclamation plan techniques and adequate bonding.

The Forest Service has met none of these conditions, the Idaho Conservation League says.

Buchta disagrees.

"The approval of the operations for the 1999 season do not negate or ignore the EPA’s ideas and concerns," Buchta said. "But we are working actively with the EPA to address their concerns over (the tailing dam’s) stability."

Buchta said that the interim decision meets environmental standards set up in the final EIS.

"We disagree with them on that issue," he said.

If the Idaho Conservation League and the Boulder-White Clouds Council win the appeal, Buchta said, the interim operating plan will no longer be effective. The mine would continue to operate under the dated operating plan, pending the approval of SPOO or another temporary operating plan, he said.


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