U.S. Water News Online
BOISE, Idaho — Phosphate-mining companies including Monsanto Co. and J.R. Simplot Co. want the Legislature to bar Idaho regulators from forcing them to restore mineral-tainted groundwater beneath their operations to its natural condition once they shutter their mines.
The mining industry says that standard is impossible to meet.
In legislation introduced this week in the state Senate, the Idaho Mining Association that represents the companies also aims to expand the state Department of Environmental Quality's definition of mining areas to clear the way for the companies to pollute groundwater in perpetuity -- provided the pollution stays beneath waste rock piles and processing plants.
The bill comes after the Idaho Mining Association and the Idaho Conservation League, an environmental group, failed to agree last year to proposed new DEQ rules to clarify what must be done to address groundwater pollution beneath open-pit mines. In November, the agency's board postponed the talks until April 2008.
With negotiations on hold, industry lobbyist Jack Lyman now is pushing for lawmakers to intervene on behalf of mines that are concentrated in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest near the Idaho-Wyoming border.
Sen. Chuck Coiner, R-Twin Falls, said at this week's hearing he fears the industry's demands could leave sites adjacent to phosphate mines vulnerable to contamination, partly because it's so difficult to determine the flow of groundwater in aquifers.
For instance, in eastern Idaho, selenium pollution from defunct phosphate mines and their waste piles in the late 1990s killed at least four horses and hundreds of sheep after they drank from contaminated water.
"How are you going to contain it, and not affect the waters around your mine?" Coiner asked.
"I'm not asking for a license to pollute," Lyman said, adding nothing in his bill absolves companies of responsibility to protect neighboring property. "We don't want to affect farmers who are off-site."
Rick Phillips, a spokesman for J.R. Simplot, didn't immediately return an Associated Press phone call seeking comment.
At the heart of the issue is the Idaho Groundwater Quality Plan, passed by the 1992 Legislature to protect aquifer quality while still allowing mining activities by companies that employ about 4,000 workers statewide.
In early 2007, the DEQ, the mining industry and environmentalists agreed the 15-year-old plan's exemption allowing mines to pollute groundwater in some instances was unclear and merited changes. Mining companies feared uncertainty over cleanup requirements could stifle new projects, while environmentalists said vagueness makes it easier for companies to pollute.
But then negotiations broke down, for several reasons.
The industry disagreed with the agency's plan to require it to clean up groundwater within eight years of shuttering a mine. And environmental groups objected to DEQ-favored provisions that allowed groundwater pollution below mining sites such as waste rock piles and reclaimed areas.
Justin Hayes, of the Idaho Conservation League, said Lyman's legislation is an attempt to circumvent rule talks before they are complete.
"Apparently you cannot negotiate in good faith with the Idaho Mining Association," Hayes said, adding Lyman also understated the legislation's effect to members of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, where the bill was introduced.
For instance, Lyman said his measure focuses on naturally occurring pollution concentrated in groundwater found at the bottom of a mining pit.
According to its text, however, the bill would also legalize groundwater pollution at waste rock disposal sites, reclaimed areas and ore processing plants.
"The mines want a license to pollute in perpetuity," Hayes said.
Hayes wants DEQ to develop rules that require mining companies to engineer projects to prevent groundwater pollution, rather than accepting such pollution as inevitable. Such standards were used by Canadian-based Agrium Inc. in its North Rasmussen Ridge mine 25 miles from Soda Springs, Hayes said.
Lyman assured lawmakers his measure won't allow mining companies to pollute surrounding property. Geological conditions beneath the earth effectively filter pollutants before they migrate elsewhere, he said.
"It isn't as though there's some great sea underground," Lyman said. "It's flowing through porous rock" that keeps minerals from moving downstream to adjacent ground, he said.
Environmental groups counter that past selenium-related animal deaths leave them unconvinced.
"We're seeing levels of contamination in some of the water seeps that are near mines that have proven deadly to sheep," said Coby Tigert, of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in Idaho Falls, which also opposes the bill. "We all live downstream from something."
Return to the
U.S. Water News Archives page
Return to the U.S. Water
Use a comma to separate e-mail addresses:
Hi, I thought you might like to read this article.