Idaho, environmental group settle mine pollution lawsuit

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — An environmental group and Idaho officials have reached a tentative settlement over toxic discharge from an abandoned silver and lead mine in central Idaho near one of the world's top ski destinations.

The Idaho Conservation League in federal court documents made public Thursday agreed to have its lawsuit dismissed as long as state officials get a federal permit involving discharge from the Triumph Mine. Such a permit could require expensive cleanup by the state. A judge has to approve the deal.

The lawsuit filed in September contends Idaho officials are discharging arsenic and other pollutants into the east fork of the Big Wood River in violation of the Clean Water Act.

"The settlement begins the process of the state addressing the discharges," said Justin Hayes of the Idaho Conservation League.

The resort towns of Ketchum and Sun Valley are about 7 miles (11 kilometers) to the northwest of the mine, as well as Sun Valley Resort's Bald Mountain ski area. The towns and ski area are upstream of the mine pollution.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1993 proposed adding the mine to the national Superfund list to help with cleanup. But the stigma, possible damage to tourism and a drop in property values led local residents and officials in Blaine County, which relies heavily on tourism, to reject the idea.

The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, named in the lawsuit, then took over responsibility for the mine in a deal with the EPA. Asarco Mining Company filed for bankruptcy and, the lawsuit said, agreed to pay the Department of Environmental Quality $1.7 million to take care of cleanup at the mine.

"I think what we're going to see is that was a bad deal for the state," Hayes said. "The state took a horribly contaminated site and obligated taxpayers to pay for the site forever."

The area covers about 60 acres (24 hectares) that include a mine tunnel and tailings, both leaking toxic waste. The EPA says the site's 1 million cubic yards (765,000 cubic meters) of black sand left over from the defunct mine constitutes a health hazard because it is laced with lead, arsenic and zinc. Water from the mine area has an orange tint.

"The condition at the mine site has improved a great deal since cleanup began 30 years ago," said Don Carpenter, mine waste program scientist with DEQ. "It's a complicated site, and issues arise and we address them as they come up."

He said Triumph Mine has three mines connected by a 7,000-foot (2,100-meter) tunnel that has two concrete plugs about 16 feet (5 meters) thick to prevent water from surging out catastrophically. That's a possibility if water builds up behind a place where the tunnel has collapsed.

Carpenter said the department has already started some of the work required in the settlement in anticipation of it being approved. Work includes applying for the federal permit, monitoring the site and posting several no trespassing signs around a settling pond.

Possible solutions to preventing the toxic waste from reaching the Big Wood River will be clearer after the settlement is finalized. One possibility is a treatment plant to treat the wastewater in perpetuity.

The Idaho Department of Lands manages about a third of the site and is named in the lawsuit. Deputy Director David Groeschl said the state is working to identify a permanent solution to the discharge.

"That has been part of our effort for the last several years working with DEQ," he said.

The EPA and U.S. Department of Justice have until mid-November to review the settlement agreement. If those entities don't object, the next step would be for a federal judge overseeing the case to approve the agreement.