BOISE (CN) – A mining company claims the federal government is to blame for selenium pollution from four Idaho mines, which Uncle Sam permitted to fill valleys with mining waste. Nu-West Mining says the government withheld information about the problem, then provided inept cleanup supervision and refuses to pay Nu-West the $10 million it has spent on environmental remediation.
The Forest Service, U.S. Geological Service and Bureau of Land Management refused to accept plans for phosphate mining at four public land sites near Soda Springs, so mining companies were forced to accept the federal plan to dump shale waste into valleys over streams and on other surface areas, according to the complaint.
Phosphate deposits in this region are typically found on either side of a rock layer with high selenium content.
Though large quantities can be toxic, selenium is an essential micronutrient for animals in small doses. The government directed mine operators to stockpile the waste shale and dump it on the ground because it promoted revegetation of the sites, the lawsuit claims.
Nu-West says it inherited leases at the four sites, which had been mined from the 1960s to the 1990s, after Nu-West was created in 1995 from predecessor companies.
The selenium pollution became public in 1996 when six horses on a nearby ranch were diagnosed with selenosis. Five had to be euthanized.
Nu-West says that without help from the feds, it relocated the affected rancher.
Nu-West claims that despite Forest Service testing in the early ’90s that indicated selenium in local water supplies, the agency omitted that information from published water quality reports.
Nu-West says it found out about the federal testing in 2007 after a Freedom of Information Act request.
The government’s brilliant plan for dealing with the shale waste involved, among other things, spreading it in valleys over streams, a practice known as cross valley fill. Although the concept was touted as state-of-the-art, the fill actually acted as gigantic leach piles that caused selenium to percolate into water supplies after rain, Nu-West says. Modern mining practices require entombing the shale waste underground.
Although the government required mining companies to dump shale waste above ground as a “precondition to the acceptance of their mine,” and denied the selenium problem for years, it later claimed that it needed $77 million to clean up the mines during a mining company bankruptcy proceeding in 2001, Nu-West claims.
Uncle Sam got $15 million in a 2004 settlement agreement, but is inappropriately using the money to pay general expenses instead of cleanup., Nu-West says.
As Nu-West started cleaning up the mess, the government made “incompetent, inefficient, and irresponsible” oversight efforts, the suit claims.
Represented by Michael C. Creamer of Givens Pursley in Boise, Nu-West seeks declaratory judgment and repayment of its cleanup costs.