BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A Canadian company proposing a gold mine in central Idaho is undeterred by a U.S. Geological Survey study that found more extensive pollution than previously thought from historic mining in the area.
Midas Gold Corp. President and CEO Stephen Quin said the 4.6 million ounces of gold the company expects to recover near the town of Yellow Pine is worth cleaning up a century's worth of past mining activities as a part of the project.
"There's sufficient gold to justify taking on that liability," Quin said Tuesday by phone from the company's headquarters in Vancouver, British Columbia.
The Geological Survey report released Tuesday on the Stibnite Mining Area following a three-year study shows new areas of arsenic and mercury pollution.
"One thing that surprised me was the magnitude of the highest mercury concentration that we found in a sample that was pretty much off the charts," said hydrologist Alexandra Etheridge, author of the report.
The three key points of the study, she said, are identifying sources of arsenic and a substance called antimony, quantifying the mercury pollution in a creek, and creating three sites that will offer real time information on pollution levels in streams.
Water from the area is the drinking source Yellow Pine. The area also contains bull trout and fall chinook salmon, populations receiving protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The Idaho Department of Lands, through its Abandoned Mine Lands program, helped pay for the study using money provided by Midas Gold. The USGS, as an impartial agency, won't take money from businesses, and Etheridge declined to comment about the gold mining company's plans.
Despite finding new sources of pollution and some high readings, she said the results could have been worse.
"Overall," she said, "I think the water quality for a headwater drainage with a history of mining is not that bad."
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is interested in the study because since the 1990s it has spent $4 million trying to clean up the Stibnite Mining Area.
Suzanne Skadowski, agency spokeswoman, said the EPA and Midas Gold Corp. have had discussions. She said there are significant environmental studies to be cleared before Midas Gold Corp. could receive permission to start mining, but that the federal agency is intrigued by a plan that might result in cleaning up the area without cost to taxpayers.
"On its surface, at least, it sounds like a good deal," she said.
However, she said the agency is wary because the Stibnite Mining Area has a pollution problem because past mining companies failed to follow through on reclamations. The last mining company forfeited its reclamation bond and then declared bankruptcy, leaving taxpayers stuck with millions of dollars in cleanup costs.
"There's a general worry with a lot of people because that's part of the history, and that history will repeat itself," Skadowski said.
The Idaho Conservation League, a watchdog environmental group, has been skeptical about the proposed mine.
"The project itself is fairly audacious," said John Robison, the group's public lands director. "While it could clean things up on the one hand, it could also make things worse if things don't go as planned."
If the project does eventually go forward, an open pit mine would be developed employing about 500 workers over about 12 years, the anticipated lifespan of the mine. Quin, the mining company president, said the amount of gold in the area puts it among the top 10 gold mining spots in the United States.
"It kind of ends up being a win-win situation," he said of the project. "We obviously get to develop gold resources and the area gets cleaned up and the state gets a large amount of employment and economic benefit."
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