Simplot mine expansion takes step forward

October 4, 2018

POCATELLO — The federal government has suggested a tweak to J.R. Simplot Co.’s planned Smoky Canyon Mine expansion, which regulators say would reduce selenium impacts while also enabling the company to use a less robust protective cap over backfilled pits.

The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management offered the preferred alternative they’ve developed for the East Smoky Panel Mine in a draft environmental impact statement issued in late September.

Ore from Smoky Canyon Mine is piped in slurry form to the company’s Don Plant in Pocatello, where it is refined to make phosphate fertilizer.

The company estimates the mine and fertilizer plant combined employ 626 workers, and indirectly support another 1,326 regional jobs.

The project would entail building a single north-south open pit, which would be mined in six phases, starting from the northern end. Initially, overburden material from excavation would be used to backfill Panel B of the existing mine, and would then backfill pits within the new mine as sections open. It would take advantage of existing Smoky Canyon infrastructure.

The mine expansion would disturb 847 acres — including 531 acres of U.S. Forest Service land and 316 acres owned by Simplot. Two power transmission lines would also have to be rerouted to avoid it.

Contamination by selenium, a trace mineral found naturally in soil that is vital for life but can be toxic in excessive concentrations, has been a longstanding problem in the Caribou County phosphate mining area, linked to water contamination of nearby streams and many livestock deaths.

Simplot proposed to cover its mining disturbance with a cap comprising 2 feet of chert or limestone, 3 feet of clay and 6 inches to a foot of topsoil. Kyle Free, the BLM’s project manager, explained the agency’s preferred option calls for narrowing the pit to disturb 78 fewer acres but digging it deeper. Free said most of the rock that would be excavated from the new panel is low in selenium, and the narrow configuration the federal government prefers would avoid tapping into a vertical band on shale that’s higher in selenium.

Essentially, Free said the agencies’ preferred alternative would reduce groundwater contamination by “avoiding producing the waste in the first place.” The government’s preferred alternative would also allow Simplot to use only topsoil as a cap.

Simplot spokesman Josh Jordan said the expansion has enough ore to keep the local fertilizer processing plant operating for three years. The ore is of exceptional quality and will be used for blending to improve quality of ore from the current Smoky Canyon Mine, thereby extending the longevity of the mine from another 15 years to about 18 more years, Jordan said.

Simplot’s mining proposal was initially submitted in 2013 and was updated in 2015. The recent draft environmental impact statement is available online at www.fs.usda.gov/projects/ctnf/landmanagement/projects.

Public meetings on the proposal are scheduled from 5 to 7 p.m. on Nov. 13 at the Civic Center in Afton, Wyoming, at 150 S. Washington St., and Nov. 14 at the BLM Pocatello Field Office, 4350 Cliffs Drive.

The expansion will be reclaimed and seeded with an approved vegetation mix. But the Trump Administration no longer requires companies that extract resources from public lands to conduct off-site mitigation to offset wildlife impacts, which was mandatory under the Obama Administration. Representatives of mining companies that work in the phosphate patch vow they’ll continue investing resources for the benefit of wildlife voluntarily.

Jordan pointed to the 2017 Chief’s Honor Award that the Forest Service gave to Simplot for work on the Salmon River’s Yankee Fork to restore fish habitat.

“Over the years, we’ve worked under a number of different regulatory environments with different administrations,” Jordan said. “Our commitment to the long-term health and safety in the communities where we work and the environment doesn’t change. We’ll continue to do that work.”

Itafos, formerly Agrium, is in the midst of accepting proposals for projects in the vicinity of its new Rasmussen Valley Mine, to be funded with $1.2 million the company set aside for off-site mitigation. Jon Goode, special projects manager at the company’s Conda site, said the company also made a cash payment of between $400,000 and $500,00 to expand an Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s Wildlife Management Area. Though those projects were approved under the Obama Administration, Goode anticipates mining companies will make similar habitat investments in the future.

“I believe mining companies always want to do the right thing and mitigation in my opinion is an element of doing the right thing,” Goode said. “I believe there will still be mitigation initiatives.”

State conservation leaders say they’re concerned by the policy change but are pleased by recent investments mining companies have made in wildlife habitat enhancements.

“We think Agrium did a great job there, and they really set the standard for other mining companies going forward,” said Allison Michalski, a conservation associate with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

Michalski described the BLM’s policy shift as “unfortunate.”

Jon Robison, public lands director with Idaho Conservation League, believes mitigation projects should be considered “the cost of doing business on Idaho’s public land” regardless of federal policy.

“It may be the companies will need to step up and complete the mitigation because it’s the right thing to do,” Robison said.

Update hourly