Engineering News

Officials approve Monsanto phosphate mine in Idaho
Wednesday June 22, 2011, 11:52 am EDT

BOISE, Idaho (AP) -- Federal officials have approved Monsanto Co.'s plans to expand mining operations in southeast Idaho's phosphate patch after concluding that a $30 million liner and drainage system would adequately protect nearby streams and rivers from selenium and other harmful minerals.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management's decision comes after years of environmental analysis and review of the agricultural company's plans in a region still dealing with the side effects of pollution caused by historic phosphate mining operations.

Federal land managers gave final approval last week to the Blackfoot Bridge Mine project, located on a combination of private and public land 10 miles northeast of Soda Springs near the Idaho-Wyoming border and just 600 feet from the Blackfoot River.

Two years ago, the federal officials balked at the company's application, citing concerns that selenium -- a mineral lethal to animals when consumed at high levels -- could leach into the groundwater and streams from the massive pile of waste rock that would accumulate during the 17-year life expectancy of the mine.

But Monsanto reworked its design and now propose spending up to $30 million on a drainage system and state-of-the-art liner cap that would prevent rain and snowmelt from mixing with the selenium-rich waste rock.

"We took this very, very serious because the stakes are so high given the past contamination in the region," said Jeff Cundick, minerals branch chief for the phosphate program of the Caribou National Forest and the Bureau of Land Management.

"There is always going to be risk. But we feel the risk is now manageable and low," he said. "This is not your grandfather or father's phosphate mine we're approving at this point. This is the culmination of a thorough and highly scientific study."

For Monsanto, the agency's green light means it can continue mining the region's rich deposits of phosphate ore, a critical ingredient for its Roundup weedkiller products. The company's current mining footprint, the South Rasmussen Ridge Mine, located just miles from the Blackfoot Bridge site, is expected to be depleted in the next year.

The company intends to use existing paved roads to haul ore to its processing plant in Soda Springs and will not build any new roads.

Dave Farnsworth, minerals chief for Monsanto's Soda Springs plant, said the company is pleased with the decision and opportunity to continue its presence in the region.

The company employs about 750 workers, a mix of its own employees and contract miners, and state labor studies show the operation supports an estimated 2,200 secondary jobs in the region. Company officials say initial work at the new site could begin later this year.

"The mine and the advanced technologies we will employ will preserve good jobs in southeast Idaho, as well as clean water and a healthy environment," Farnsworth said in a statement.

The BLM posted its record of decision in the Federal Register on Friday, starting the clock on a 30-day window for appeals.

The Blackfoot Bridge project is located at about 6,000 feet in the mountains and 600 feet from the Blackfoot River, a waterway that is already showing selenium levels exceeding federal clean water standards.

In its final analysis, the BLM acknowledges that some levels of selenium from Blackfoot Bridge will find its way watershed, but at levels not expected to exceed federal standards.

Environmental groups that monitor the region's phosphate mining industry say any new discharge of selenium into a watershed already harmed by past mining is cause for concern.

"We're looking at this and just trying to make sure they are protecting the resources," said Marv Hoyt, Idaho director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. "While it's great to see the government and company is looking to do things better than the past, we still have some concerns about this project."

During the next three weeks, GYC and other watchdogs will focus much of their review on the cap proposed to keep water away from the waste rock.

BLM officials say similar technology has been used in landfills across the nation and other mining projects, but Hoyt says it's never been applied on such a massive scale or in the kind of rugged landscape and weather conditions found in southeast Idaho.

The cap is composed of several layers of natural and synthetic materials, starting with a six-inch layer of refined natural material over the waste rock. The first layer will then be carpeted with a layer of clay sandwiched between two sheets of synthetic material designed to repel water for 200 years, Cundick said.

The synthetic will then be covered by a thin layer of plastic, followed by more clay and 18 inches of top soil to facilitate vegetation.

Waste rock will also be piled atop a drainage network of pipes to divert any water leaching through into nearby evaporation ponds, according to the plan.

"We believe it will perform well," Cundick said.

Source: Associated Press

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