2000 Cascadia Times

Poison in Salmon Country

Emergency Action Ordered for Removal of Cyanide Lake in Idaho

By Paul Koberstein/©2000 Cascadia Times

STANLEY, Idaho - Federal officials say they will issue an emergency order forcing a gold mining company to remove a lake of cyanide that is contaminating salmon habitat in Idaho, Cascadia Times has learned. The lake is perched on a bench almost directly above the Yankee Fork of Idaho's famous Salmon River, at the edge of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.

The Salmon River and its tributaries are key to the Northwest's billion-dollar salmon restoration effort. Once home to some of the most abundant salmon runs of any tributary in the Columbia Basin, its fish have been decimated since the construction of federal dams on the Columbia and Snake. Proposals to remove four dams on the Lower Snake would restore more fish by far to the Salmon than any other river. But federal officials worry that the cyanide spilling into the Salmon's headwaters is making survival all the more difficult for endangered salmon, steelhead and bull trout.

The government intends to move quickly on removing the 65-acre lake, which contains 500 million gallons of cyanide-laced wastewater, plus 4.3 million tons of tailings - all from the defunct Grouse Creek open-pit gold mine. Cyanide has been detected in ground or surface water near the mine almost continuously since it opened in 1994. But the government's biggest fear now is that eventually the lake could overflow in a major storm, sending torrents of poison down a mountainside into the Yankee Fork, potentially killing all living things for many miles. The dam holding back the lake could also become unstable because of earthquakes, bad weather or leaks.

"We have a problem on our hands," said Helen Hillman of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle, in response to a Cascadia Times inquiry. NOAA is involved because it manages Idaho's salmon under the Endangered Species Act.

"If we don't do something about it, it could get worse," Hillman said. "The amazing thing was this mine was permitted in the first place. Eventually it would overflow, and you would have highly toxic water flowing right into the Yankee Fork. It would kill everything in the Yankee Fork for miles."

One federal official likened the situation to a Romanian gold mine spill that devastated 300 miles of the Danube and its tributaries. The top of a dam broke and released an estimated 100,000 cubic meters of cyanide-laced wastewater within 11 hours. Now, in Idaho, with every heavy spring rain, agencies and conservationists watching the cyanide lake at Grouse Creek worry that a similar disaster could happen in Idaho.

"We are facing a tradeoff between the low level of damage from cyanide release, and the potential for a catastrophic spill," said Nick Iadanza, a National Marine Fisheries Service biologist who has reviewed cleanup plans. "In Romania we had the same kind of situation. A tailings impoundment didn't fail - it overflowed. There was a massive fish kill. If this mine at Grouse Creek would fail, that would be pretty catastrophic. I honestly don't know what the potential would be to fail. It is leaking, and it seems unlikely they are going to be able to control that leak."

However, the government's plan for removing the lake is risky, too. They plan to drain all of the contaminated water from the lake, treat it, and then dump it directly into the Yankee Fork. Given the high levels of contamination, the EPA believes that removing all the pollution from the water may not be possible at any price within Hecla's ability to pay. However, federal officials say the river will dilute the pollution enough to make it safe for fish - a point that some conservationists dispute. They are concerned that toxic levels of pollution will be discharged directly in the path of migrating salmon for however long it takes to empty the lake, most likely for three or more years.

The mine's owner, Hecla Mining Co., of Coeur D'Alene, Idaho, has refused to sign a consent agreement providing for a cleanup. Negotiations with the Forest Service, which owns the property where the mine is located, broke down in late April. The Forest Service is now preparing to issue a "unilateral order" forcing Hecla immediately to take action.

But while officials hurry to head off a catastrophic spill, they must also deal with chronic cyanide poisoning of salmon habitat that appears to be getting worse as water levels in the lake rise. The EPA says the lake recently was found to be leaking at a new point. And as the waters rise, the downward pressure forcing contaminated water out from the bottom of the lake also increases. Water levels in the lake have risen about 10 feet in the last three years, with about 20 feet to go before water reaches the top of the dam.

"If you had a huge storm event, that could speed up the need for action," said Nick Ceto, the Environmental Protection Agency's regional mining coordinator in the Northwest. "That's why I want to get the pond emptied quickly. If it raised the elevation 5 to 10 feet, that could increase the contamination."

One positive note is that the dam holding back the lake appears to be stable for now, Ceto said. But the dam was built on top of an old landslide, and another federal official reviewing the problem said the lake is not in a secure place and was never designed to hold as much water as it does now.

"The more water you get in the pond, the more downward pressure you get, the faster you get water moving down into the creeks," NOAA's Hillman said. "We already have a chronic problem right now. There is a potential if we don't do anything about it, this could fail."

The poisons would enter the Yankee Fork just upstream from a million-dollar salmon recovery project operated by the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe, which is working to restore salmon runs to the area, where the tribe has reserved fishing rights.

"The water is acutely toxic for fish," Hillman said. "Our choice wasn't real palatable. If there was some other way around this problem I'd like to see the solution. We'd be happy to avoid having to discharge any of this water into the Yankee Fork."

Federal officials also must deal with Hecla and its troubles. Until last summer, Hecla denied that the lake was leaking, insisting instead that residue from an old spill was the source of contamination. Hecla is opposed to federal proposals calling on it to remove and treat the wastewater to a high standard, insisting instead on a much less rigorous cleanup.

Federal officials worry that if they push Hecla too hard, the company may go out of business. It may anyway: Hecla has lost money in each of the last nine years, including a $38.6 million loss in 1999, and says it may never again become profitable. Hecla carries a $7 million bond, an amount that probably won't come close to covering cleanup costs at Grouse Creek.

Hecla also has environmental cleanup liabilities at seven other sites in Idaho, including Superfund sites at Bunker Hill and the South Fork Coeur D'Alene River. If Hecla walks away from these obligations, the responsibility to pay for them would shift to taxpayers, officials say. That, of course, would be nothing new for the mining industry. The worst cyanide spill in the U.S., at the Summitville Mine in Colorado, left 17 miles of the Alamosa River ecologically dead. Rather than stick around and clean it up, the mine's owner, Summitville Consolidated Mining Company, declared bankruptcy in 1992 and walked away. (Hecla did not return phone calls to Cascadia Times.)

We have to just work with them and the current bond they have in place and hope they are willing and able to perform," said Maggie Manderbach, regional mining coordinator for the Forest Service. "What choice do we have?

Complicating the sensitive negotiations between the federal government and Hecla is the position taken by the state of Idaho. Federal officials say Idaho has joined Hecla in advocating for a less stringent cleanup. The state is willing to let Hecla contaminate three-fourths of the Yankee Fork's width, three times greater than what the EPA would allow. All along the state has been one of the mine's biggest boosters, and recently reduced a fine, levied against Hecla last year for illegal cyanide discharges, from $230,000 to $51,500.

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