©2000 Cascadia Times
in Salmon Country
Action Ordered for Removal of Cyanide Lake in Idaho
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
"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
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."
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.
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?
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
NEXT PAGE: Who let this happen?