The Midas Touch?

A Canadian company wants to build a massive gold mine in Idaho’s Valley County. Under a pending agreement with the Trump administration, it could be let off the hook for the resulting waste.

Valley County, Idaho is the ancestral home of three Indigenous peoples: the Nez Perce, Shoshone-Bannock, and Shoshone-Paiute Tribes. The Salmon River, which runs through the valley, is also home to many threatened and endangered species, including Chinook salmon, westslope cutthroat trout, and bull trout, which these peoples have sustainably fished for hundreds — if not thousands — of years.

photo of salmon river in idaho
Part of Idaho’s Salmon River system, which is home to several threatened fish species, would be rerouted as part of of the proposed Stibnite Gold Project. Photo by jdblack / pixabay.

The valley is also the site of nearly a century of hardrock mining, and resulting mine waste. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “About 50 percent of the [former mining] site has either exposed tailings or is underlain by tailings susceptible to weathering and re-exposure.” Taxpayers are picking up the tab to clean up the mess.

And now, Midas Gold, a Canadian mining company, wants to build a massive, sprawling gold mine on the still-recovering site.

The proposed Stibnite Gold Project would create three open pits, bury the valley with hundreds of millions of tons of additional mine waste, re-route part of the Salmon River system into artificial ditches and tunnels, and create a permanent pollution problem requiring treatment of large volumes of water forever. There is no guarantee that fish would ever return to the area.

President Trump is doing everything he can to steamroll the concerns of the region’s Indigenous peoples, who have long opposed the project, and permit it as quickly as possible. Freedom of Information Act documents show the administration allowed Midas Gold to write its own assessment of the project’s impact on endangered species (known as a Biological Assessment). Such an assessment is required under the Endangered Species Act, but is more typically completed by the federal government. This approach goes hand-in-glove with the administration’s ongoing push to undermine community oversight and gut government regulation of the mining industry, the nation’s top toxic polluter. Trump has even used the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic to reinforce his push for Stibnite’s permits.

The new project raises important questions about who is responsible for cleaning up mine waste in the United States. In July, the EPA began negotiating a so-called “Good Samaritan” agreement with Midas Gold, whereby the company would agree to re-mine and clean-up some of the existing waste at the site, and in exchange, the agency would waive some of Midas Gold’s liability for certain mining and reclamation activities there. The worry is that this agreement may effectively absolve Midas Gold of any responsibility for pollution from the new mining. This is especially troubling since the Nez Perce allege ongoing Clean Water Act violations in the area.

On top of that, in August, the US Forest Service nominated Stibnite for speedy permitting. And in September, the EPA publicly announced a new Office of Mountains, Deserts and Plains dedicated to hardrock mining issues in the West, and in particular, to promoting Good Samaritan projects. While the EPA has touted the office as a means to accelerate cleanup efforts, many tribes and environmental groups say Good Samaritan projects allow companies to re-mine without truly remediating, and in the process, escape liability for their mess.

The Forest Service, which is expected to release a draft Environmental Impact review in December, is currently seeking public input on this mine proposal. At this stage, it’s clear they must provide additional analysis that addresses the project’s potential environmental impacts. Critical analysis of the impacts is either missing entirely in the Biological Assessment, or is inaccessible to the public, and fundamental modeling flaws fail to address the potential impacts to fish and clean water. If you want to weigh in, you’d better hurry. The comment period ends on Wednesday, October 28.

Our government is systemically subverting robust public input on mining decisions and putting the profits of mining companies like Midas Gold over communities, ecosystems, and taxpayers. We should demand a government that better serves our people and resources, not those of foreign mining companies.

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