SOURCE: Vancouver Island CTV News

DATE: December 14, 2019

SNIP: Documents show the U.S. Forest Service allowing a Canadian company to write a key environmental report on its proposed open-pit gold mines in central Idaho after the Trump administration became involved.

The documents obtained by conservation group Earthworks show British Columbia-based Midas Gold’s lobbying efforts after initial rebuffs from the Forest Service.

The report, called a biological assessment, would typically be written by the Forest Service or an independent contractor. Its purpose is to examine the potential effect the open-pit mines would have on salmon, steelhead and bull trout protected under the Endangered Species Act.

An internal Forest Service document in February 2018 shows the agency deciding to deny Midas Gold’s request to participate as a non-federal representative in writing the assessment because the massive project would likely harm protected fish. But by October 2018, Midas Gold was not only a participant, it had taken over leading the process and writing the document.

“I think it’s particularly inappropriate for a mining company to be analyzing their own project,” Bonnie Gestring of Earthworks said this week. She obtained the documents as part of a public records request.

Documents show ongoing lobbying efforts with federal agencies and then a meeting in May 2018 between Midas Gold and Dan Jiron, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s acting deputy under secretary for natural resources and environment. In November, Midas Gold met with Jim Hubbard, the Agriculture Department’s under secretary for natural resources and environment.

John Freemuth, an expert on U.S. land policies at Boise State University, said it’s not unusual for companies to lobby whatever administration is in power. But he said having a company get the OK to write its own biological assessment is something he’s never heard of before.

“It looks like there was a lot of political pressure that Midas brought to bear at higher levels,” said Freemuth, who reviewed the documents. “It wouldn’t pass what people call the smell test.”

Midas Gold says the Stibnite Mining District contains more than 4 million ounces (113 million grams) of gold and more than 100 million pounds of antimony. Antimony is used in lead for storage batteries as well as a flame retardant. The U.S. lists antimony as one of 35 mineral commodities critical to the economic and national security of the country. Midas Gold says the mines will directly create an average of 500 jobs for up to 25 years.

Mining in the area about 40 miles (65 kilometres) east of McCall dates back more than a century and has resulted in two open pits, including one that has been blocking a salmon spawning stream since the 1930s. The site also has extensive tailings left from mining operations that are the source of elevated levels of arsenic.

Previous mining companies walked away, leaving cleanup to U.S. taxpayers. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has spent about $4 million since the 1990s restoring habitat.

Midas Gold plans additional mining in the two open pits and to create a third open pit. The work would roughly double the size of the disturbed mining area to about 2,000 acres (800 hectares) and eliminate some previous reclamation work.

The Nez Perce Tribe has treaty rights to the area and has come out against new mining amid concerns for fish habitat. Below the mining area is about 80 river miles of habitat for spring/summer Chinook salmon, steelhead and bull trout in the South Fork of the Salmon River and its tributary, the East Fork of the South Fork. The Salmon River itself is home to additional federally protected salmon, including endangered sockeye salmon.