Atlanta Gold officials and their attorney are scheduled to meet with the Idaho Conservation League Thursday to talk about settling the lawsuit over arsenic pollution.
The talks come after U.S. District Judge Mikel Williams ruled the gold-mining company is liable for the continuing pollution of Montezuma Creek. Williams ruled that the Canadian mining company could not abandon a water treatment plant it built in 2006 to remove arsenic from water flowing into a tributary of the Boise River.
"We're hopefully we can reach a settlement," said Michelle Points, an attorney who represented Atlanta Gold.
The judge’s decision offers Atlanta few choices. It could appeal Williams’ decision based on it claim that since it no longer owns the tunnel where the arsenic-laced water comes from it shouldn’t be liable.
But even if it eventually wins it still has to deal with the Forest Service, which holds a $35,000 bond Atlanta Gold paid when it got its exploration plan approved. Williams said that in a 1997 operation plan it filed with the Forest Service, Atlanta Gold had said it would clean up the entire tunnel, a project that could cost millions of dollars.
Points said in court that if the costs exceed the $35,000 bond, “I suppose they (Forest Service) could recover it from Atlanta.”
But so far the Forest Service hasn't appeared interested in chasing down the funds. It has set a estimated figure on how much the clean-up could cost.
In 2008, when Atlanta was planning to do exploration in the tunnel, the Forest Service said it would give the company a conditional permit if it put up about $8 million in bonds. The company backed off its underground plans and went back to a plan for an open pit mine on private ground.
But $8 million dollars would be the floor the Idaho Conservation League would consider for addressing the clean-up, said John Robison, who had handled the issue for the group. Cleanup will likely require water treatment into perpetuity.
Or Atlanta could ignore the environmentalists and wait for the federal government to act.
Williams ruled Atlanta Gold continues to violate the Clean Water Act and the company’s 2009 permit for the plant. The fine for violations could be up to $37,500 a day. Since the company has never met the limits, that’s more than 1,700 days — or more than $60 million of potential fines.
The EPA has not acted yet and probably won’t if the company settles with the environmentalists. But that's a lot of risk hanging out there for Atlanta Gold who continues to drill and work toward opening a mine.