As gold prices creep upward of $400 an ounce, entrepreneurs are looking at Idaho's countryside with dollar signs in their eyes.
But with the glitter of gold comes the taint of cyanide, a highly toxic chemical that has historically wreaked havoc on the water and wildlife of Western states. According to the Mineral Policy Center, cyanide is still used to retrieve 90 percent of gold mined in the U.S.
The State of Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) recently received its first application in over 10 years for a new cyanidation gold mining facility. Desert Mineral Mining's proposed small facility is located a 15-mile crow's flight from downtown Boise off of Blacks Creek Road in northwest Elmore County.
Another large open-pit cyanide-leaching gold mine located less than two miles from the mountain hamlet of Atlanta is also in the works, but Atlanta Gold Corp. of Canada has not yet submitted a permit application to DEQ.
Desert Mineral Mining LLC's (DMM) application is under heavy scrutiny from local landowners and conservation groups. Fortunately, the cyanidation permit application and all related correspondence are public record, and the agency is required to accept all public comment on the proposal. But while DEQ and other government agencies have a legal responsibility to follow protocol, it is up to the public to educate itself on controversial issues and take a stand.
BW spent many an hour reviewing the application and talking with government officials, environmental organizations, Boise State faculty and nearby landowners and ranchers.
Notable omissions and concerns raised by DMM's application:
Financial history of applicants: While portrayed in local news as being based out of Laguna Beach, California, DMM is not a registered business in California. It is, like Laguna Pacific Partners and 17 other incorporated business registered under the name Daniel Terzo, registered in Nevada, according to the Nevada Secretary of State's Web site.
The incorporation status of seven of Terzo's Nevada-based businesses are listed as being either in "default" or having been "revoked." Terzo's partner in DMM, Gregg Corlyn, has seven similar strikes on his record--including two corporations whose statuses are "permanently revoked." Two particularly familiar sounding of these defunct companies, Desert Mineral Technology, LLC and Desert Mineral CES, LLC, are listed as being under the same current management as DMM.
While it is not illegal to be involved in so many companies, the words "default" and "mine" invariably conjure images of the toxic superfund sites that evasive companies have left for the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up. Idaho already has 12 such sites. One, the Blackbird copper mine 20 miles east of Salmon has been feeding arsenic into the Salmon River watershed for over 20 years.
Should DMM follow the example of its predecessors and permanently close due to dwindling funds during mining operations, DEQ will immediately utilize a $25,000 bond from the company for cleanup operations. However, as leakage cleanups at Idaho's other abandoned mines have easily stretched into the tens of millions of dollars, such a bond amount could quickly prove insufficient.
Water Rights: According to Idaho law, a company must divulge "all process water supply source(s)" as part of applying for a cyanidation permit. However, the only mention of DMM's water source in the application reads, "Water supply will be by ground water wells (local); DMM will purchase water supply from current water right user."
According to the Idaho Department of Water Resources, not only do no such rights exist on the site, but there are also no suitable high intensity or "consumptive" rights to be purchased on or near the proposed mine site.
"All we know is that there are some stock water and domestic rights," explains IDWR spokesman Mike Keckler. "The nearest consumptive rights we can find are associated with that truck stop [The Boise Stage Stop, located over 10 miles from the site]. As far as where they are going to get their water, we have no idea at this point."
Leakage: Just as it requires the identification of a specific water source, Idaho law requires all cyanidation facilities to include a method of monitoring leaks of noxious chemicals, such as cyanide tailings, into the surrounding groundwater. However, in DMM's application, there is no mention of such a system being in place.
In response to a DEQ call for such a detection system, usually inserted between the tailings pond and the ground beneath it, DMM mining consultant Rick Richins responded in a Dec. 10 letter to DEQ that "DMM believes a leak detection system is unnecessary and unwarranted, given ground water conditions and the fact that the pond is not in close proximity to surface waters. We propose that the existing down-gradient monitoring well is adequate to ensure environmental protection."
The well of which Richins writes is located on the opposite side of Blacks Creek Road from the mine site, over a quarter-mile from where the leak would emanate. As such, it would only be helpful in detecting a cyanide leak already well into circulation in surrounding groundwater.
Public Threat: According to DMM's application, the mine's leaching process will utilize approximately 200 pounds of sodium cyanide per week and will store up to 1,500 pounds of the highly noxious chemical onsite. That amount of sodium cyanide is not illegal in and of itself, but very small amounts of it can be mixed with any kind of acid (hydrochloric acid will also be onsite) to form a chemical weapon favored by terrorist groups and militias worldwide.
The examples of violent cyanide hijackings are too numerous to mention here, but a pair of notable recent examples include: May 2002, when three armed hijackers commandeered a tractor trailer carrying 21,120 pounds of sodium cyanide through Mexico and traveled 500 miles into Texas before being apprehended; and January 2004, when the FBI discovered two pounds of sodium cyanide solution in a briefcase belonging to Texas militia leader William Krar. That amount, mixed with a vial of acid, could kill enough civilians to fill a shopping mall. These and many other fiascoes have been more than enough to cause sodium cyanide to be labeled a serious threat to public safety by the Department of Homeland Security.
DMM's application limits its description of the security measures taken to guard the mine site to the cyanide being "stored in a locked area inside the plant" and having "trained personnel onsite."
Earthquake: In the application, DMM provides a concise, to the point of being incomplete, history of Idaho's recent seismic activity as: "Within a 200 kilometer radius of the site, Intensity V and VIII [earthquakes] have occurred between 1852 and 1980, with the closest significant events both occurring in May of 1916." This history notably overlooks the M7.3 Borah Peak Earthquake that hit Idaho in 1983.
The potential importance of this omission is twofold. First, according to Boise State Seismologist Jim Zollweg, "The primary earthquake hazard [in Idaho] comes from these more distant earthquakes. Faults in Challis, Stanley and Grand View are clearly active and capable of producing earthquakes in the six to seven magnitude range." The first two sites are more than 100 miles away from the proposed site, but the Borah quake nonetheless inflicted light damage across Boise in 1983. Grand View, however, is just over 50 miles from the mine site.
Zollweg posits that any significant earthquake to hit Idaho in the next 50 to 100 years would likely be no bigger or more destructive than the Borah Peak quake. However, in a recent letter penned to the DEQ by the Idaho Conservation League, the structural integrity of DMM's site, which is located on land that has seen much historical mining activity, was deemed questionable enough that such a quake could easily prove disastrous. The letter reads:
"Lack of knowledge regarding the exact location of old [mining] tunnels could result in constructing key parts of the facility in unstable areas. For instance, it would be inappropriate (and unsound) to construct the impoundment facility on top of old mining tunnels. Doing so would jeopardize the stability of the impoundment and could result in a failure of the impoundment's foundation, leaks or even a catastrophic failure of the entire impoundment."
DMM's application does not address these possible tunnels, nor the threat they could pose to the proposed facility and the surrounding landscape, except to state, "Significant previous mining disturbance has occurred at the site."
What is cyanide?
Cyanide refers to a group of compounds made of carbon and nitrogen. Cyanide solutions readily bond with gold, silver and other metals, which is why the mining industry uses it. Cyanide is usually stored and transported as a solid. It is stable when dry. Most cyanide solids will dissolve in water to produce toxic cyanide gas. Cyanide gas is colorless and smells like bitter almonds.
How does cyanide affect living organisms?
Cyanide is highly toxic. It is the killing agent used in gas chambers. Cyanide poisoning can occur through inhalation, ingestion, and skin or eye contact. One teaspoon of a 2% solution can kill a person. In general, fish and other aquatic life are killed by cyanide concentrations in the microgram per liter (part per billion) range, whereas bird and mammal deaths result from cyanide concentrations in the milligram per liter (part per million) range. Evidence shows that cyanide compounds linger in affected plant and fish tissues and can persist in the environment for long periods of time.
What are the dangers of using cyanide?
Cyanide reacts with many other elements and is known to break down into several hundred different cyanide-related compounds. Despite the risks posed by these breakdown compounds, mines are not required to monitor or report these chemicals. Cyanide leaching, as practiced by the modern mining industry, is inherently dangerous to the environment and the communities surrounding a mine that uses the process. As cyanide use continues, so do serious accidents and spills. Four recent examples are:
• Zortman-Landusky Mine, Montana, 1982: Fifty-two thousand gallons of cyanide solution spill into the drainage supplying fresh drinking water for the town of Zortman. A mine employee discovers the accident when he notice the smell of cyanide in his tap water.
• Summitville Mine, Colorado, 1992: Summitville gold mine contaminates 17 miles of the Alamosa River with cyanide and other contaminants.
Where is cyanide mining banned?
Montana became the only U.S. state to ban the use of cyanide in the mining industry via a voter initiative in 1998. Last year Montana voters rejected an initiative to repeal the ban.
Internationally, the Czech Republic, Greece, Turkey, Germany, Costa Rica, Argentina, Ecuador have banned cyanide leach technology in gold and silver mining.
Source: State Environmental Resource Center/www.serconline.org
Idaho Department of Environmental Quality has scheduled a public meeting at which DEQ will discuss and answer questions about Desert Mineral Mining's proposed cyanidation facility. The meeting will be held Thursday, Jan. 20, 6:30 p.m., at DEQ's State Office, 1410 N. Hilton. Public written comment will be accepted through 5 p.m. MST, Friday, Feb. 4. Submit written comments to: Bruce Schuld, c/o Teri Gregory, Waste Mgmt. & Remediation Div., DEQ State Office, 1410 N. Hilton, Boise, ID 83706; e-mail: email@example.com.