Salmon River - Idaho
Salmon and Cyanide
Visitors to this central Idaho vacation spot enjoy fishing, hunting, hiking, horseback riding and rafting on the "Wild and Scenic" Salmon River. But not far away is an environmental disaster caused by a modern mining project operating under the 137-year-old framework of the 1872 Mining Law.
Grouse Creek Mine began production in 1994, with a waste impoudment touted as "state-of-the-art." Within the year, the mine was releasing cyanide, mercury and other pollutants into the water. Grouse Creek closed in 1997, but two years later "pervasive levels" of cyanide had been found in Jordan Creek, a tributary to the Salmon and designated critical habitat for endangered Chinook salmon.
Nineteenth-century prospectors sought large gold veins and nuggets using picks and pans, but today, the mining industry extracts microscopic specks of gold from massive amounts of rock. To reduce costs, mining companies often use "heap leaching," a process that involves spraying cyanide solutions over large open-air mounds of crushed ore. At Grouse Creek and elsewhere, this outdoor chemical processing has had disastrous results.
Yet today, the nation's mining law remains silent on environmental protection, and the Clean Water Act, written with manufacturing facilities and sewage treatment plants in mind, has proven ineffective in controlling mine operations. In 2001, the cost for Grouse Creek reclamation was estimated to run upwards of $23 million, well in excess of the financial assurance provided by the company when the mine started.
- "The Modern Gold Rush," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 12, 2009. (Chart)
- Dean C. Morgan and Matthew R. Wilkening, "Removal Action Memorandum: Grouse Creek Mine Tailings Impoundment Dewatering," U.S. D.A. Forest Service & U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, May 21, 2003. (PDF)