Idaho cobalt mining that devastated local water revisited with greener new approach

·6 min read
Idaho cobalt mining that devastated local water revisited with greener new approach

The Salmon-Challis National Forest covers 4.3 million acres of rolling mountains covered in trees, rivers, and wildlife living in the largest wilderness area in the United States.

Underneath the surface lies the Idaho Cobalt Belt, one of the country’s only large deposits of the critical mineral key to the lithium-ion batteries that power our phones, laptops, and increasingly our vehicles.

Cobalt mining abandoned this mountain range decades ago, after one mine caused devastating effects on the local environment and an entire town, a mountain range in Idaho is now seen as a key location in the country's move towards renewable energy sources.

PHOTO: Australian company Jervois received permits to mine for cobalt inside a mountain in Idaho. (ABC News)
PHOTO: Australian company Jervois received permits to mine for cobalt inside a mountain in Idaho. (ABC News)

Australian company Jervois is poised to restart mining in the Salmon-Challis National Forest. They’re looking for cobalt they mine to be used in rechargeable batteries in devices such as electric vehicles, power storage containers and other clean energy technology.

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Matt Lengerich, the executive general manager for Jervois Mining Ltd, a company that is undertaking the project, told ABC News that the endeavor is important for the county's goal to reduce the use of fossil fuels.

"We're going to continue to see technology…advances, especially in batteries and in better battery chemistry that I have no doubt. But even with all of those advances, we're still going to need sustainably supplied cobalt," he told ABC News.

Lengerich boasted his company's new technology and mining processes, contending that those 21st-century advances, along with new government regulations, will minimize the impact on the surrounding area, fauna and flora compared to previous mining operations.

Local environmentalists say they want to make sure any new mining doesn’t set back decades of restoration efforts.

PHOTO: Cassi Wood, the project manager for Trout Unlimited, speaks to ABC News' Ginger Zee about the efforts to restore Idaho's polluted rivers. (ABC News)
PHOTO: Cassi Wood, the project manager for Trout Unlimited, speaks to ABC News' Ginger Zee about the efforts to restore Idaho's polluted rivers. (ABC News)

"There are some things that really we need to keep in our minds as we move forward with this big mineral rush that I think we're experiencing in this country and other places in the world," Cassi Wood, the project manager for Trout Unlimited, told ABC News.

The mountain located in the area was the source of cobalt copper and was mining there began at the end of the 19th century. It picked up in the 1940s when the government used cobalt from the mine to help build jet engines during the Cold War.

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The open pit mining operation at the site, called Blackbird, supported a town with a population of 250 named Cobalt.

Things changed in the early 90’s when federal regulators confirmed pollution from the mine had contaminated nearby watersheds.

"The fact that the federal government actually asked for the mine to happen and produce, produce, produce…corners cut to…produce that cobalt," Erin Clyde, a senior specialist of environmental geochemistry at Glencore Copper, which now owns the land. "You cannot compare mining in the 50s and 60s to mining of today."

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Matt Green, a project manager for Trout Unlimited, told ABC News that the mining was done without much oversight or federal environmental laws and that the metals left exposed by the mine’s open pit and underground tunnels left behind allowed toxic metals to flow into nearby rivers and streams.

"They completely turned the stream upside down as the big machine went in there, turned the stream upside down [and] blocked the whole stream off to get those precious metals," he told ABC News. "And then what was left were just these big piles of rock that the water just randomly flowed through. It was very unnatural. No riparian, no trees."

PHOTO: In the early 90s, the federal government shut down the Blackbird mining operation after it discovered the local water and ground supply was polluted. (ABC News)
PHOTO: In the early 90s, the federal government shut down the Blackbird mining operation after it discovered the local water and ground supply was polluted. (ABC News)

In 1992, the Blackbird site became an EPA Superfund site and work has been done to restore the water and local grounds. Wood said environmentalists are still picking up the pieces left behind by Blackbird 30 years later.

"We've had populations of salmon, local populations of salmon go extinct from the impacts from mining," Wood said.

She added that the restoration efforts will likely take decades to complete.

And while the ecological devastation from the old mine is still fresh, a changing economy, and increased calls to decrease fossil fuels, has pushed companies and the federal government to restart mining.

Cobalt is deemed "critical" by the U.S. government because of its use in batteries. President Joe Biden has been pushing to mine for it domestically instead of importing it from other nations.

PHOTO: Matt Lengerich, the executive general manager for Jervois Mining Ltd, speaks to ABC News' Ginger Zee about how his mining operation will minimize environmental impacts. (ABC News)
PHOTO: Matt Lengerich, the executive general manager for Jervois Mining Ltd, speaks to ABC News' Ginger Zee about how his mining operation will minimize environmental impacts. (ABC News)

The president's call for more domestic mining has also been prompted by national security concerns as the country is looking to avoid relying on minerals mined from locations in the Democratic Republic of Congo that are being used by Chinese companies.

Lengerich gave ABC News a tour of his company's mine, which has permits from the state of Idaho, the EPA and the U.S. Forest Service.

His company, which has a seven-year permit, will take a different approach to mining the mountain region that contains cobalt with new technologies and practices that he claims will meet this new demand and prevent more pollution.

Their operation will take more steps to contain wastewater to prevent any toxic metals from traveling into nearby streams and includes plans for how they will restore the land when mining operations are complete.

"We do it very differently than we did 50 years ago, even 20 years ago. And part of what we're going to see today is what the future of mining really looks like," he told ABC News.

Lengerich's team has drilled holes in specific locations in the mountain to explore the interior and then use that to explore which parts of the mine are rich in cobalt and target those areas.

PHOTO: ABC News' Ginger Zee tours a new cobalt mining operation inside an Idaho mountain. (ABC News)
PHOTO: ABC News' Ginger Zee tours a new cobalt mining operation inside an Idaho mountain. (ABC News)

By using only a tunnel system where they know the cobalt exists, Lengerich said Jervois can avoid disturbing the mountainside and creating the waste that comes from an open pit mine.

"At the end is all of this gets filled, we cap that portal, we put the slope back and we re-vegetate it and nobody will ever never know we were here," he said.

Jervois has also built a wastewater treatment plant and ponds to contain any water from the mine to prevent it from mixing with surrounding streams before it is treated.

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State and federal regulators said they found Jervois' plans for treating wastewater and restoring the area after the mine closes will minimize, but not completely eliminate the harm to the environment.

The company aims to produce 2,000 tons of cobalt a year, which represents 10% of the U.S. demand for the new batteries.

PHOTO: Cobalt is deemed 'critical' by the U.S. government because of its use in batteries. (De Agostini via Getty Images)
PHOTO: Cobalt is deemed 'critical' by the U.S. government because of its use in batteries. (De Agostini via Getty Images)

Wood reiterated that it's going to take decades to clean up the waters and the rest of the ecosystem from the previous cobalt mining, but she had optimism that the latest project could go on without setting their restoration efforts back.

"I think that as our own species, we have a lot of ingenuity in terms of our technology and our ability to engineer things," she said. "And I think the right mining strategy, using sustainable practices and with an environmental concern at the forefront, I think it's possible."

Green emphasized that all of the players involved need to strike a balance to ensure the state's ecological future is secure.

PHOTO: Environmental groups have spent the last 30 years restoring the water near the Blackbird mining site. (ABC News)
PHOTO: Environmental groups have spent the last 30 years restoring the water near the Blackbird mining site. (ABC News)

"It's a big part, agricultural mining, and another big part of our economy is fish and wildlife, with outfitters and guides that use those fish for their for their jobs," he said. "A lot of these little towns like Salmon, Challis [and] Stanley, they rely on those natural resources both for fishing and tourism. So water and the resources are very important."

Idaho cobalt mining that devastated local water revisited with greener new approach originally appeared on abcnews.go.com