The Idaho mining industry took the first step to ensure its mines retain the legal right to pollute the groundwater below their operations.
The industry got a bill printed Monday in the Senate Health and Welfare Committee that would clear up the industry’s current exemption from the state’s groundwater protection law. All summer the mining industry, the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality and environmentalists tried to negotiate rules to rewrite the state’s groundwater protection rules that include an exemption for mining activities.
Both sides say that exemption is too vague and needs to be improved. But that's where agreement ends. The state has not yet finished the rulemaking but the mining industry, which didn’t like the direction the state was going anyway, didn’t wait.
The issue is especially important for the phosphate mining industry in eastern Idaho. It has plans to open several mines soon and without the exemption approval would be much harder, the industry says.
President pro tem of the Idaho Senate Robert Geddes is the environmental affairs manager for Monsanto Corp, which is planning a new phosphate mine near the Blackfoot River near Soda Springs. He said he will stay out of the legislative process to ally concerns over conflict of interest.
But as the most powerful man in the Senate he won’t have to do anything to exert his influence.
The main issue centers on determining how large an area can be contaminated with pollutants like selenium, a naturally occurring element occurring with phosphate ore deposits in eastern Idaho — and for how long. Industry spokesman Jack Lyman has assured lawmakers and state regulators that the companies can protect other people’s water supplies even if minor pollution seeps below a mine site.
Environmentalists, neighbors of the proposed mines and some legislators aren’t convinced.
Ultimately this battle will likely be decided in the Senate committee. It’s hard to see how the Geddes-led Senate will vote against the mining industry and with mining companies poised to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into the state in the next several years it is unlikely the House will balk.
I covered this very issue in Wisconsin, a far stricter state on environmental rules, in 1982. There the mining industry and environmentalists had agreed on all other aspects of mining law except this issue. They finally cut a deal by setting the allowed groundwater pollution level at drinking water standards.
Lyman told me he wasn’t interested in what other states did. And it’s worth noting that Wisconsin has had only one mine permitted since those rules went into effect, though another law places a moratorium on mining unless a company can show where a similar mine operated without causing pollution.
Democrats Kate Kelly and Elliot Werk of Boise opposed printing the bill along with Twin Falls Republican Chuck Coiner. But for them to defeat the mining industry bill they will have to convince at least two other Republican lawmakers to join them when the bill comes up for a vote.