The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sounded alarm bells that a large proposed gold-antimony mine in Idaho could significantly harm nearby wetlands and fishing grounds commonly used by nearby Native American communities.
Touted by developer Midas Gold Corp. for being situated on one of the richest gold deposits in the U.S., the Stibnite gold project has attracted support from the likes of Barrick Gold Corp. and magnate John Paulson. Midas Gold has also promoted the mine as an environmentally conscious effort that would combine restoration with extraction and help secure domestic supplies of antimony, a critical mineral sought by the U.S. military.
But Stibnite would be built on federal forestland and could impact the habitat of salmon and trout species sacred to nearby Native American tribes. In a previously unreported Nov. 18, 2020, letter to the U.S. Forest Service, the EPA's review of the draft environmental impact statement prepared by the Forest Service detailed a litany of concerns about the project, citing the potential for damage to water quality and "disproportionately high and adverse impacts to tribal populations."
"Based on our review of the draft EIS, we continue to have significant concerns regarding potential impacts to water quality and aquatic resources," the letter said.
The 29-page document outlined what the agency said was a lack of information on plans to ensure that groundwater and surface water quality will be protected from potential negative impacts resulting from the mine. The agency also flagged the need for more analysis to support the effectiveness of Midas Gold's proposed water treatment processes at Stibnite.
The company had yet to give information to support the "effectiveness and long-term success" of its wetlands mitigation plans, the letter said.
Midas Gold is taking "all the matters" highlighted by the EPA's letter "seriously," and the company is confident that the government's environmental review process "will work as intended to address the issues raised and to refine and improve the project before it is approved," spokesperson McKinsey Lyon told S&P Global Market Intelligence in a Jan. 4 email.
"The draft EIS is just that, a draft intended to solicit feedback and identify areas where changes need to be made," Lyon said.
The project is expected to get final sign-off from the federal government in September.
However, opponents of the Stibnite project said the EPA comments indicate the government has moved too fast toward approval.
John Robison, public lands director for the Idaho Conservation League, told Market Intelligence in a Dec. 31, 2020, email that the letter "reinforces our concerns" that the project could "further degrade" the headwaters of the South Fork Salmon River.
Robison noted that the EPA was particularly concerned about impacts on tribal communities. According to the draft EIS, tribal access and uses of the region — including hunting, fishing, ceremonial and "spiritual, medicinal, and intrinsic values" — have "long-standing and on-going subsistence and cultural importance for Ttribal members." The South Fork Salmon River and surrounding ecosystem hold plants and wildlife that local tribal groups, such as the Nez Perce, Shoshone-Bannock and Shoshone-Palute tribes, have historically used for traditional and spiritual purposes.
Typically, impacts to tribal communities have been addressed in within environmental impact statements under "environmental justice," referring to a decades-old executive mandate to include considerations of possible undue harm to minority and low-income populations. Stibnite's draft EIS does not show specific mitigation measures on how the impacts to tribes will be resolved, the EPA said in the letter.
"Filling in these gaps will take much more additional time than the Forest Service and Midas Gold have predicted," Robison said.
It is unclear how these concerns may be addressed by the federal government after President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in. However it is clear that tribal consultation could play a larger role in the government's environmental reviews. Biden often spoke about environmental justice issues and announced plans to nominate people of color to numerous Cabinet positions, including Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., to be the first Native American woman to lead the U.S. Interior Department.