(CN) – Officials did not violate federal environmental laws when they allowed an Idaho phosphate ore mine operator to expand, the 9th circuit ruled.
The federal appeals panel in Seattle found that the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management properly studied the mine’s potential to pollute streams and groundwater before allowing it to expand onto federal mineral leases adjacent to its current borders. The expansion is expected to extend the life of the mine for another 14 to 16 years, according to the ruling.
The Simplot Company has operated the 5,000-acre Smoky Canyon Mine in Idaho’s Caribou National Forest since 1984.
After the mine sought permission from the agencies to expand, a 2007 environmental impact statement found that the proposed expansion would not harm water quality standards.
The agencies said that Simplot could go ahead with the expansion because the company had developed a soil cover system that studies that computer models showed would limit the percolation of selenium-polluted water into the area’s streams and aquifers.
The Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the National Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife challenged the decision in district court, arguing that the agencies had acted arbitrarily and capriciously and failed to take the required hard look at the project’s potential to pollute the area’s water.
The nonprofits claimed that the agencies failed to consider other sources of existing selenium pollution when it concluded that the proposed remediation would sufficiently offset future pollution from the expanded mine.
Seeking an injunction to stop the mine expansion, the groups argued that the computer models did not properly take into account how seasonal variations would affect the soil cover, or overburden, system.
The district court denied the motion for an injunction and granted summary judgment to the agencies.
On appeal, the three-judge panel agreed with the lower court, finding that the agencies had done all that was required of them to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Clean Water Act and other federal laws.
“The agencies here not only fully recognized and evaluated the impact of future selenium pollution, they specifically asked an outside consultant about the one concern Greater Yellowstone says they ignored, justifiably relied on the vast majority of experts who said that the model accounted for seasonal variations, and further implemented testing and monitoring to ensure compliance,” Judge Sidney Thomas wrote for the court. “This is all NEPA requires.”
Though selenium is “essential to animal health in small amounts,” the element is toxic at high levels and “highly toxic selenium concentrations have been found in area streams,” the ruling states.
Writing in dissent, Jude William Fletcher argued that the agencies had not done enough to assure that the mining operations would not pollute the area in the future.
“Even if the model effectively accounted for seasonal variation in the long-term, this alone is insufficient, because the mine expansion project will, at most, extend the life of the Smoky Canyon Mine for fourteen to sixteen years,” he wrote (emphasis in original). “The agencies’ conclusions, and the majority’s opinion, leave open the possibility that significant environmental pollution will occur at Smoky Canyon Mine in the near term.”