Federal judge requires more up-front study for Idaho mining

Court determines that Forest Service failed to meet environmental review standards in approving exploration project on public lands

Pollution from mining can affect ground and surface water for many decades, like here at the abandoned Pennsylvania Mine site in Summit County, Colorado, where miles of stream have poisoned by acid mine drainage. Photo by Bob Berwyn.

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — A late August federal court ruling from a U.S. District Court in Idaho could have a ripple effect on proposed mining activities around the West.

The decision by U.S. District Court Judge Edward J. Lodge requires the U.S. Forest Service to do more baseline environmental analysis and disclose potential water quality impacts from an exploratory mining proposal.

In his decision, Lodge, a Bush-era appointee, said the Forest Service failed to meet standards spelled out under federal environmental laws when it comes to evaluating and disclosing potential effects to groundwater.

From the ruling:

“The Forest Service acted arbitrarily and capriciously in concluding that no other impacts to groundwater hydrology need be considered; such as with groundwater hydrology … TheCourt will vacate that portion of the EA as to the finding of no significant impact as it concerns groundwater and remand the matter to the Forest Service to undertake further analysis concerning groundwater and determine whether to issue a supplemental EA or if a full EIS is required.”

In the Idaho case, Mosquito Gold proposed extensive exploratory drilling for gold and other valuable minerals.

In some cases, the Forest Service has been cavalier about approving exploratory drilling, based on the bedrock 1872 Mining Law, which gives companies wide leeway to conduct mining activities on public lands.

“What they (the Forest Service) has often said is, ‘We have to approve this anyway because of the 1872 mining law,’ ” said Roger Flynn, the attorney with the Western Action Mining Project, who argued the case on behalf of three Idaho conservation groups.

According to Flynn, that attitude has sometimes resulted in projects being approved with only cursory review and often, no groundwater analysis.

The ruling should force the Forest Service and mining companies in Idaho to conduct much more detailed reviews, and especially, to establish some baseline data against which to measure potential future impacts, Flynn explained.

“The Forest Service said, ‘We don’t think there’s going to be any impact to water quality.’ We said, wait a minute. You’re going to drill dozens of holes … you’re obviously going to alter the groundwater,” Flynn said.

“They do it all over he place on exploration projects going on all over the West,” Flynn said.

This ruling means the the Forest Service can’t ignore groundwater impacts when it comes to mining projects. While the ruling is specific to Idaho, it sends a signal to other public land managers in the West, Flynn concluded.


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