Yesterday’s announcement by the Canadian company, Mosquito Consolidated Gold Mines Ltd., that it had received final approval from the U.S. Forest Service to begin exploring for molybdenum in Idaho’s Boise National Forest is bound to refocus attention on an old federal law that plays a central role in mining decisions.
The 1872 National Mining Act, which still governs how mining occurs on federal lands, has been a bone of contention between environmental groups and mining companies for decades.
Critics are concerned that a so-called “no action alternative” in the law requires the Forest Service to approve an exploration and potential mining plan, regardless of whether or not the site is appropriate for such activity.
Other legislation, however, such as the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, can play significant roles in mitigation of environmental threats.
A principal issue concerning the proposed CuMo mine near Idaho City, east of Boise, is the effect molybdenum mining may have on groundwater. The site is at upper Grimes Creek, in the headwaters of the Boise River, which provides more than 20 percent of the drinking water supply for the populous Treasure Valley, including Boise and several other cities.
Last summer, an environmental assessment was released for 30 days of public comment.
The Idaho Conservation League, Sierra Club, Idaho Rivers United and Golden Eagle Audubon entered a joint statement that said, in part, “Our organizations maintain that large-scale industrial mining in the Boise River watershed is unsuitable given the importance of this area to provide clean drinking water for downstream communities, irrigation water for agriculture, recreational opportunities, continued economic development and habitat for fish and wildlife.”
After the Forest Service granted the drilling permit this summer, the same environmental groups filed a complaint that requested reconsideration of the decision.
“The Forest Service’s environmental specialists and their consultants have done a very thorough job on the Environmental Assessment,” Shaun Dykes, CuMo project manager, said in yesterday’s press release. “This analysis has reaffirmed that the proposed activities would have no significant impact on the environment, including water resources in the region.”
Molybdenum, a corrosion-resistant mineral with one of the highest melting points, is used principally as an alloying agent in steel, cast iron and super alloys in the manufacturing of products including nuclear reactors, jet engines, and oil pipelines.
About 56,000 metric tons of molybdenum were produced in the United States in 2008, making it one of the country’s few mineral commodity exports, according to an article last year in Land Letter.
Last month, Mosquito announced that preliminary site exploration had determined the potential for six billion tons of metals in the region, which was the site of a major 19th century gold rush.
Not only molybdenum but copper, silver and tungsten deposits could be there, the company believes. If confirmed by exploratory drilling, this would be one of the largest concentrations of combined minerals of its type in the world, and possibly the largest molybdenum deposit.
Mosquito estimates development costs at $2 billion to $3 billion, but the mine’s yield over a 40-year life could be up to $70 billion.
More than 100 exploratory drill sites will be established over 2,900 acres of national forest, a project that will include construction of about 13 miles of roads. If the mine eventually were built, it could provide about 1,000 jobs and become one of the state’s largest private employers.
It would be unlikely to come easily.
“Prepare for a fight if you plan a mine in the Boise River watershed,” Idaho Statesman environmental reporter, Rocky Barker, wrote this month. “Here the public’s worries about mining pollution go far beyond environmentalists’.”