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Friday, July 19, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Tribe Challenges Open-Pit Gold Mine

BOISE, Idaho (CN) - A federally approved open pit gold mine project in Idaho's Payette and Boise National Forests will wreak havoc on native species, the Idaho Conservation League and Nez Perce Tribe claim in court.

The Golden Meadows Exploration Project near the north central towns of Yellow Pine, Cascade and McCall will endanger native populations of Chinook salmon, steelhead and bull trout, the plaintiffs say.

The Nez Perce Tribe was granted fishing, hunting, gathering and pasturing rights through a treaty with the U.S. government in 1855.

They sued the U.S. Forest Service, NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] Fisheries, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, in Federal Court.

The three-year project will help Canadian mining Company Midas Gold determine if it can proceed with plans to develop three open-pit gold mines.

The plaintiffs claim the approval violates the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.

They say the Forest Service's approval of the project was not properly authorized.

"The Forest Service, over plaintiffs' administrative objections, authorized the project through a Decision Notice and Finding of No Significant Impact (DN/FONSI) issued by the Krassel District Ranger on ... Dec. 3, 2013, and based on an Environmental Assessment (EA) issued [in] July 2013," the complaint states. "Plaintiffs also challenge NOAA Fisheries' and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's final determinations, through Letters of Concurrence (LOCs) ... that the project is not likely to adversely affect fish species listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) or destroy or adversely modify their critical habitat."

A significant amount of equipment and manpower will be hauled to the project site "year-round" during all types of weather, resulting in about 43,000 "one-way" trips, including 1,000 shipments of fuel equaling around three million gallons, according to the lawsuit.

"Each fuel haul trip involves driving a truck carrying either 4,000 gallons or 500 gallons of fuel for approximately 73 or 85 miles, mostly on narrow, steep, windy roads along the South Fork of the Salmon River and two of its tributaries," the complaint states.

The plaintiffs say approval of the project should have been contingent upon a full Environmental Impact Statement, required under NEPA, and that Fish & Wildlife failed to take a "hard look" at the impacts of the project, including the increased traffic, which will kick significant amounts of sediment into fish habitat.

"The majority of all vehicle travel is on erodible native surface (dirt) and gravel roads in close proximity to streams where ESA-listed fish are present year-round," the complaint states. "The Forest Service has methodologies it regularly uses to evaluate sediment delivery from national forest roads. But the Forest Service never evaluated how much sediment would be generated and mobilized by MGI along the transportation routes and never considered the adverse impacts to ESA-listed fish and other resources, in violation of NEPA." (Parentheses in complaint.)

Nor did the Forest Service bother to consider alternatives such as alternate hauling routes, and winter-only drilling to prevent disturbing and relocating sediment, according to the complaint.

The plaintiffs say Fish & Wildlife abused its discretion. They want the court to vacate the decision, and the NOAA's final determination on the affects of fish populations made through Letters of Concurrence.

They are represented by Bryan Hurlbutt of Advocates of the West, in Boise; Michael Lopez and David Cummings for the Nez Perce Tribe, in Lapwai; and Roger Flynn of the Western Mining Action Project, pending pro hac vice.

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