Compromise and Environmentalism

Yellowpine Pit, East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon River, Idaho

Yellowpine Pit, East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon River, Idaho. The East Fork flows through tailings and mine waste from the right to the abandoned pit mine; marinates a while and then overflows to the left-center, down to the South Fork of the Salmon River.

WC is an admitted, unapologetic conservationist and environmentalist. For most of his adult life he has been actively involved in conservation organizations. As a contributor, as a lawyer, as a member and even as a member of boards of directors. WC understands the issues and challenges conservation organizations face pretty well.

And the recurring issue, the challenge that splits and divides every conservation organization is the matter of compromise. Because, at every turn, conservation organizations face the question of whether to compromise, whether to accept half a loaf, whether to allow a trade-off to accomplish at least part of the organization’s goals. Anyone who has worked for or with a conservation organization knows exactly the dilemma WC is describing.

Sometimes it’s easy. If the issue is an endangered species, there’s only one answer. Often, it’s much harder.

But let’s illustrate the quandary with a specific example.1

There’s a large, abandoned mining site in central Idaho. Historically it’s been a tungsten, antimony and gold mining area. It’s near Yellowpine, Idaho, if that helps. It’s usually referred to as the Stibnite Site. The Stibnite Site is in the headwaters of one of the tributaries of the Salmon River, specifically the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon. Historically, this was important salmon and steelhead spawning habitat. Since the 1930s, there’s been a physical and pollution barrier that keeps fish from reaching that spawning area. If there were still salmon in the Salmon River.2 The abandoned mine leaches a nightmarish concoction of metals and toxins into the alpine streams. Aluminum, antimony, arsenic, iron, manganese, and mercury, to name just a few. Some of those substances in concentrations seven hundred times levels allowed by law. Fixing that problem would cost hundreds of millions of dollars; the money isn’t there.

There’s still low grade gold in the ore bodies and the tailings waste from the World War II Tungsten mine and 1960s gold mine. This isn’t gold that’s in nuggets you can find on the ground. It’s gold chemically bound in sulfides and oxides. Molecular gold, not even microscopic flakes. The “ore body” has 4 – 6 grams of gold per metric ton of ore. That’s 4 to 6 parts per million. Some deep ore bodies have maybe 8 grams of gold per metric ton. A Canadian company, Midas Gold, wants to go after that gold. Midas Gold’s proposal would more than double the total size of the existing disturbed area.

But the permitting process is problematic when these contaminated sites are involved. The risk of protracted litigation for Midas Gold is very high.3 So Midas Gold is offering conservation organizations, one of the potential plaintiffs in any environmental litigation, a true devil’s bargain. Midas Gold proposes to remediate and reclaim the Stibnite hazmat as a part of its mine development, if the conservation organizations will leave Midas Gold alone to develop that much bigger mine. It’s the devil you know – a badly contaminated site leaching hazmat into an important waterway – or the devil you don’t – yet another mine in a state with a depressing legacy of mine debacles.

Put yourself in the shoes of a hypothetical member of an Idaho conservation organization. Do you solve the problem at hand and allow a new mine, a bigger new gold mine? Do you accept the offer of a compromise?

This particular example – any example – involves lots of details. Is the mining company trustworthy? Is its economic model accurate, so that there will be enough profit to operate the mine and then clean up? Or will it go broke and leave another disaster? The very low gold yield implies truly appalling amounts of spoil, mine waste. The process that’s proposed to extract the gold would leave the mine waste as a powder, finer even than talcum powder. Imagine a big alpine valley, 2-3 miles long, filled 400 feet deep, with ultra-fine powder. That’s the plan. It’s concerning.

Because nature bats last. The road to the Stibnite Mines goes up Johnson Creek. This past spring, a series of massive avalanches closed the road. The county, four months later, is still working to clear the mess. Here’s the toe of just one of the avalanches, at August 11.

Avalanche Debris, Johnson Creek, Idaho; note thick layer of snow and ice still remaining

Avalanche Debris, Johnson Creek, Idaho; note thick layer of snow and ice still remaining

Think about it: they can’t keep the access road open (in fact, they intend to use a different access road to avoid the problem) and yet the mining engineers at Midas Gold think they can contain millions of tons of fine rock dust forever. They drive past proof that nature bats last every trip to their proposed mine site, yet have the staggering arrogance to think they can control these natural forces.

So what would you do in that hypothetical conservationist’s shoes? Sleep with the devil? Or live with the last devil’s work?


  1. The views here are WC’s own and not the views or positions of the conservations organizations WC has been associated with over the years. Just saying. 
  2. Anadromous fish can’t get past the four Lower Snake River Dams. As a result, they are endangered species. The fish that spawn in the Salmon River are barged or trucked above the dams. It hasn’t worked. But that’s another blog post. 
  3. In fact, a lawsuit has already been filed by the Nez Perce Tribe, whose lands these were, seeking relief under the Clean Water Act.