BOISE, Idaho (CN) - Environmentalists sued the U.S. Forest Service for authorizing a private mining company to drill 259 exploratory holes up to half a mile deep in forestland at the headwaters of the Boise River.
"The project site is basically a mountain and they would be removing the mountain and replacing it with a big pit," the environmentalists' attorney Brian Hurlbutt told Courthouse News.
The five-year project threatens water quality and rare plant habitat in the Boise National Forest, the Idaho Conservation League and others say in their Jan. 15 federal complaint.
The 2,885 acres involved are about 14 miles north of Idaho City, where Mosquito Consolidated Gold Mines Ltd. is looking for molybdenum, copper and gold deposits on public land.
The "CuMo Exploration project" would involve building 10.2 miles of new roads and 137 drill pads, and drilling up to 259 holes from 1,500 to 3,000 feet deep.
Joined by Idaho Rivers United and the Golden Eagle Audubon Society, the Idaho Conservation League says the project and its approval violate the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Forest Management Act and the Forest Service Organic Act.
Only the Forest Service is a defendant - not the private company.
The environmentalists say the Forest Service failed to prepare a full Environmental Impact Statement as required by federal law, and that it "failed to take a hard look at potential impacts, particularly impacts on water resources and Sacajawea's bitterroot."
Sacajawea bitterroot is a native plant found only in Idaho. It is named for Sacajawea, a Native American who accompanied Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their expedition to the Pacific Ocean from 1804 to 1806.
The Forest Service approved the project in 2011, but Idaho's Federal Court reversed and remanded the approval for violating NEPA, (Conservation League, et al. v. U.S. Forest Service.)
"The court ruled that the Forest Service failed to take a hard look at the potential impacts of drilling on groundwater, and remanded to the Forest Service for further evaluation - including whether to prepare a full Environmental Impact Statement," according to the new complaint. "On remand, the Forest Service has violated NEPA by again approving the project without preparing a full EIS or taking a hard look at potential impacts, particularly on water resources and Sacajawea's bitterroot."
Attorney Hurlbutt, with Advocates for the West in Boise, said the roads and drill holes are only the beginning.
"They have to haul fuel and workers up to the site on a regular basis and there would be about four drilling rigs running during the drilling season, from April 15 to Dec. 15," Hurlbutt said. "It's a substantial amount of drilling and road building activity."
He said the mining company's goal is to determine the logistic and economic feasibility of a giant open pit mine, like the 3,000-acre Thompson Creek molybdenum mine between the tiny towns of Stanley and Challis, in the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains.
"With the Thompson Creek mine in central Idaho, you can see where the big tailings stand, where the extra rock and stuff they don't end up using gets dumped," Hurlbutt said.
He said the project near Idaho City "is projected to be a number of times bigger than the Thompson Creek mine. The project site is basically a mountain and they would be removing the mountain and replacing it with a big pit."
His clients want the court to vacate the Forest Service's Decision Notice and Finding of No Significant Impact and to order the agency to prepare a full EIS.
Co-counsel with Hurlbutt is Roger Flynn, with the Western Mining Action Project, in Lyons, Colo.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.