Atlanta Gold Mine

A mountaintop view of Atlanta

There was a time when few in Boise, Idaho, would have cared about a mine at the base of the Sawtooth Mountains, more than sixty miles away. After all, Atlanta was once the site of a rousing gold rush in the 1860's and was the state's leading gold producing region during the 1930's.

But things have obviously changed, as Canadian-based Atlanta Gold Company quickly found out.

At a public hearing in Boise in 2006, mining officials made their case to a largely skeptical audience. The company planned to build two open pits on the mountain where mines have operated for more than a century. They would leach the gold from the ore by seeping cyanide solution through the crushed ore on a lined pad. Atlanta Gold would spend more than $40,000,000 to extract 500,000 ounces of gold. And there would be dozens of good paying jobs.

John RobisonBut the state's premiere conservation group, The Idaho Conservation League, was already working overtime to defeat the proposal, raising concerns about cyanide in Boise's drinking water and about the dangers of hauling hazardous materials over dirt roads that occasionally washed out.

"Open pit cyanide heap leach mines have been banned in our neighboring mining friendly state of Montana," said ICL's John Robison. "And so the fact that someone was going to come down here from Canada and put an open pit cyanide heap leach mine at the headwaters didn’t rest well with the city of Boise and the communities that live here."

In 2006 Boise's mayor and city council unanimously passed a resolution blasting the proposed open pit mine. They also called on the Forest Service to hold Atlanta Gold Co. to the highest standards allowable by law.

In 2008 Atlanta Gold Co bowed to the pressure and changed gears. Their new mine would go undergound, on private property, thus taking advantage of a more lax permitting process. And they would not use cyanide.

Atlanta treatment plantBut toxic levels of arsenic are still flowing from an historic mining tunnel that the company had re-excavated several years earlier. After a law suit and demands from the Forest Service, Atlanta Gold built a temporary water treatment facility to reduce the arsenic flowing into a tributary of the Boise River.

It's working, but some experts say the treatment facility will need to operate, perhaps forever.

Water quality does seem to be the Achilles heel of many mining operations in the West. In the Silver Valley, highly acidic water leaking out of the famous Bunker Hill mine is now being diverted to a water treatment plant, to remove the heavy metals that leach from the mine. The state of Idaho is paying for this facility, to the tune of about a million dollars a year... in perpetuity.

Treatment boxes at the Atlanta treatment plantEven many of today's modern mines have experienced unanticipated water quality problems. A 2006 study on the accuracy of water quality predictions is not encouraging. While 100% of the mines predicted compliance with water quality standards, 76% of the mines that were studied fell short.

"You would actually be better at predicting water quality problems by flipping a quarter than you would by having a team of forest service and BLM engineers there," says John Robison. "In fact, 76% of the time water quality problems are found at mines where they said nothing would go wrong."

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