A remote site about 22 miles west of Salmon in the Salmon-Challis National Forest is on track to become a fully functional, 1,200-ton-per-day underground cobalt mining operation by next summer, Australia-based mining and exploration company Jervois Global confirmed on Thursday.
Once operational, the project, known as “Idaho Cobalt Operations,” will become the only active cobalt mine in the U.S. The first cobalt ore shipment is expected in July 2022, according to mine manager Matt Lengerich.
The nearly 200-acre site is located on a plateau three miles east of the Frank-Church Wilderness as the crow flies, squarely between the south fork of Big Deer Creek and Little Deer Creek drainages.
Construction on the mine has been underway since 2012 but has significantly accelerated over the past three months, Lengerich said. So far, the Idaho Cobalt Operations campus includes a wastewater treatment plant, a mine tailings storage facility, several ore hauling roads, a processing mill in the plateau area—still under construction—and two portals to the west where hired contractors will tunnel horizontally into the hillside in the Big Deer Creek drainage later this fall.
According to Forest Service documents, two tunnels will angle slightly upwards as they follow the Ram cobalt deposit, a well-known vein in Idaho’s Cobalt Belt that also contains copper and gold. Contractors will cut through rock with “minimal” explosives, Lengerich said.
After ore is extracted from the tunnel, Jervois plans to truck it back up the hillside to a grinding mill on site. There, the rock will be pulverized into fine, sand-like particles and separated chemically by “froth flotation,” a method in which rock particles are infused with a frothing chemical that allows desirable metals to rise to the surface and cling to the froth for easy extraction. Employees can then separate out economically valuable minerals from non-target waste material, known as mine tailings.
“The tailings get put into what is essentially a bubble bath. What doesn’t float off becomes your tails,” Lengerich said.
The company will ship cobalt and copper concentrate to SMP Refinery in São Miguel Paulista, Brazil, then to its Freeport Cobalt Refinery in central Finland for further processing, Lengerich said.
At full production, the mill will process 1,200 tons of ore per day into cobalt and copper concentrate. Over its projected eight-year lifespan, the mine will produce 1.9 million tons of tailings, Lengerich said.
Approximately half of the tailings produced at the mill will be mixed with cement and used as backfill material to fill the excavation tunnel, ensuring stability. The other half will be stored securely in “dry stacks” on the western side of the campus.
Lengerich explained that in the “dry stack” disposal method finely-ground mine tailings are dehydrated and consolidated into dry “cakes,” which are stacked above a nonpermeable clay liner. The sandy material can be safely exposed to air because it will have already gone through a chemical process to remove harmful compounds, he said. Finally, it will all be topped with vegetation and topsoil in the remediation process.
Excess stormwater and snow runoff extracted from the tailings will be treated and pumped back to the mill for reuse, Lengerich told the Express. While unlikely, the company has the proper permitting to discharge liquid waste after it’s treated at the wastewater treatment plant, he said.
Interest high in economic, ecological impacts of ‘Cobalt Belt’
The Idaho Cobalt Operations project was first authorized in 2009 through a Forest Service record of decision. At that time, the site was owned by Formation Capital, which began exploring the rugged area in the early 1990s and declared its intent to mine in the area in 2001. In 2019, Formation Capital was acquired by Jervois, which took ownership of the site, Lengerich said.
“It’s been kind of a long haul,” said Josh Johnson, a spokesman with the Idaho Conservation League in Ketchum. “Interest in the project has been tied to the rise and fall of cobalt prices over the last decade—if you kind of look at a price graph of cobalt, you’ll see a spike in 2009 when Formation Capital was first hoping to get going, then a crash, then another spike more recently.”
The mineral is more in demand than ever due to a global push for electric vehicles, Lengerich said. Cobalt—a key component in the lithium-ion batteries that power modern electric vehicles and other electronics—has many other applications in the airline and military industry and is also used as a drying agent for paints, he said.
Lengerich added that the project should create about 150 to 200 jobs in the Salmon-Challis area.
Johnson called the potential for a domestic cobalt supply in Idaho “a really big deal.”
“Most of the cobalt mined globally comes from places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo or China,” he said. “There is value to having a domestic source of cobalt if it’s done responsibly, which is why the ICL has watched this project for over a decade now to make sure that regulations and protocols are in place to protect the environment.”
It’s not the first of its kind in the area. The now-defunct Blackbird Mine about two miles south of the site churned out cobalt ore between 1901 and 1968, generating a modern-day equivalent of more than $200 million, according to a 1975 mineral resource study on the area published by the USGS. But the Blackbird Mine also created an ecological catastrophe, according to the EPA.
Essentially, untreated mine tailings that were exposed to air and water due to the milling and crushing process created acidic runoff that seeped into Panther Creek, heavily damaging the waterway and creating a dead zone for fish and most other aquatic life. Mine tailings were also spilled along Blackbird Creek, the agency stated.
“I think the Blackbird Mine is certainly an example of historic mining that was done decades ago and had long lasting negative impacts on the environment,” Johnson said. “We all like to think that technology has made mining practices better these days, but this still serves as a cautionary tale.”
A previous biological assessment prepared by the Forest Service and EPA in 2007 found that the mine would “likely adversely affect federally listed Snake River spring and summer Chinook salmon, threatened Snake River steelhead and threatened bull trout,” causing “potential avoidance behavior due to copper, zinc, and cobalt in the effluent.” A subsequent biological opinion issued by both agencies the following year walked back on that statement, concluding that the project would “not jeopardize” threatened fish species. In 2009, the Forest Service issued a record of decision following an extensive environmental-impact analysis allowing the project to move forward with a few safeguards.
ICO’s permit includes a requirement for fish tissue monitoring over time to test for accumulation of heavy metals, including arsenic, cadmium, cobalt, lead, manganese, nickel and zinc. The monitoring effort began in 2012 and will continue after the mine is in operation, Lengerich said.
The permit also instructs Jervois to develop an aquatic invertebrate sampling program in Big Deer Creek and continuously monitor water quality for nitrates, nitrites, sulfates and other compounds.
“There’s plenty of other interest in mining in this region, and other projects are much more nascent exploratory stages,” Johnson said. “Everyone will be looking to this project as kind of a benchmark, not only from a mining standpoint and an economic standpoint of getting the cobalt out, but also from an environmental standpoint.”