New Gold Rush Threatens the West
by: Friends of the Clearwater: Gary Macfarlane Posted on: September 15, 2011
By Gary Macfarlane, a native of the interior West. He graduated from Utah State University’s College of Natural Resources about 30 years ago and has spent much of his life working as a volunteer or staff member for conservation organizations. He has been with Friends of the Clearwater as a volunteer or staff member for over 15 years.
Editor’s Note: As the price of gold climbs, so do the incentives to mine it. This article by Gary Macfarlane of Friends of the Clearwater explains how the proposed Buffalo Gulch mine outside Elk City, Idaho could impact the community’s drinking water and the health of the region.
B. Traven’s classic novel, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” is as applicable today as it was when it was written. The price of gold, which has been high for the past few years, has convinced venture capitalist firms to propose massive mines on public land in the United States. Public lands in Idaho are threatened by these proposals. Ironically, these mineral “exploration” firms are largely based in Canada, Vancouver, B.C. to be precise.
The proposed Buffalo Gulch mine, which would use highly toxic cyanide to extract gold from the ore near the isolated community of Elk City is a prime example. This area sits near the headwaters of the South Fork of the Clearwater River, which is home to salmon, steelhead, bull and Westslope cutthroat trout. It is also within Nez Perce treaty rights territory. While there are a few untouched streams in the South Fork Clearwater Basin, on the whole this river system is recovering from years of abuse. Putting a cyanide heap leach mine near the headwaters of a crucial fishery is not a good idea. Cyanide is highly toxic to all life forms and its use in gold recovery can leach out toxic heavy metals as well. Equally disturbing is the fact that local residents living in the Buffalo Gulch area rely on springs for their drinking water. Elk City is located at the end of a long, winding and narrow state road that travels deep into the Nez Perce National Forest. Attempting to haul large quantities of toxic cyanide on this road is a prescription for disaster.
The private homes and holdings in and around Elk City are surrounded by a couple million acres of public land, mostly in the Nez Perce National Forest, though the proposed mine site would be located on public land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). (NOTE: This strange public land management situation could be corrected by Congress. It would be far more effective for the US Forest Service to manage all the public land in this area rather than having a small inholding of public land administered by the BLM in an area surrounded by national forests administered by the US Forest Service. Both the Bureau and Forest Service have similar laws under which they manage public land).
In 2008, the mine proponent gave its proposal for a full-scale mine to the BLM. Local citizens, joined by conservation organizations, rose up against the proposal. The Nez Perce Tribe also expressed concerns over the proposal. The proponent did not complete necessary follow-up information to the BLM so the proposal is on hold. In the interim, the BLM approved limited sample drilling on an existing road for the proposed mine site. Even then, the operators were caught damaging the roadbed by operating too early in the wet summer of 2011. BLM temporarily halted the activities.
It remains to be seen whether the Buffalo Gulch Mine will be revived. It may depend on what is discovered from the drilling. It may also depend on whether a corporation called Green Future who bought land from a timber company near the proposed mine site is associated with the mine proponents. If so, the water of Elk City Residents would be even more threatened as mining proposals on private land in Idaho do not go through the public involvement processes that exist for proposals on pubic land.
In the mean time, other rivers and lands in Idaho are threatened by the high price of gold. For example, suction dredging for gold is occurring in crucial fishery streams, often without necessary water quality permits. Suction dredging is a process where a large suction hose sucks the riverbed and water into a machine where gold is supposed to settle out. The other material is spit back out into the stream, creating a sediment plume. The agencies—the Environmental Protection Agency, the US Forest Service and the BLM—are not enforcing clean water laws, rather leaving it to citizens to do the agencies’ jobs. In another example, a proposal to helicopter heavy equipment into a remote and pristine stream to dig for gold has surfaced. This area, known as the Mallard-Larkins has been proposed by citizens and the US Forest Service for wilderness designation for over 20 years. Idaho’s conservation groups are stretched thin trying to keep an eye on all of these proposals.
Friends of the Clearwater
PO Box 9241
Moscow, ID 83843
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