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Millions of gallons of toxic water are backed up in tunnels behind plugs in the Triumph Mine.

The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality presented its proposed $70 million fiscal 2022 budget to the Idaho Joint Finance Appropriations Committee in Boise last Friday, recommending that around $3 million be spent on ongoing remediation efforts at Triumph Mine southeast of Sun Valley.

The Idaho DEQ is responsible for managing contaminated water discharge coming out of the Triumph Mine tunnel, as well as overseeing contaminated soil around the site.

Just 500 feet from the East Fork of the Big Wood River, the Triumph Mine produced lead and silver ore between the early 1880s and late 1950s. Remediation work over the last few decades has included removing contaminated soil and tailings, installing two large concrete plugs inside the mine and piping contaminated water to settling ponds.

According to Idaho DEQ Director Jess Byrne, the mine water discharge is saturated with heavy metals including “arsenic, cadmium and zinc.”

Byrne said in a Friday morning presentation that the construction of a mine water management system slated to occur in fiscal 2021 had been delayed due to “continual observances of collapsed material within the tunnel.” On April 1, 2020, an “unanticipated” collapse was observed just 125 feet from the mine entrance, he said. A smaller collapse occurred in June of 2018 at roughly the same location, 135 feet into the mine.

Byrne did not say if the March 31 earthquake near Stanley caused the April 1 tunnel collapse.

State Sen. Mark Nye, D-Pocatello, a member of the Finance Appropriations Committee—a panel of state legislators responsible for creating Idaho’s annual budget—asked Byrne on Friday if last year’s tunnel failure affected downstream farms and residences.

“We are not aware of any contaminated water that has made its way into the surface water at this point,” Byrne responded. “We are doing continuous water monitoring, both groundwater and surface water monitoring.”

While the DEQ’s focus is on tunnel stabilization at the moment to allow crews to safely complete inspections, Byrne said the department hopes to develop more permanent solutions to address the mine’s pollution. For fiscal 2022, the department has requested $1.5 million in state funding to install a third plug 100 feet into the tunnel; about $406,000 to construct a mine water discharge basin; $324,000 to stabilize the tunnel for safety purposes; $265,000 for the construction of a spring infiltration system; $262,000 for a technical investigation for “tunnel remedies”; and the remaining funding for operations and inspections.

To fund tunnel stabilization work, Gov. Brad Little has recommended that $1.5 million be transferred from the DEQ’s Water Pollution Control Fund to the Triumph Remediation Fund. The DEQ is also requesting about $94,000 in funding to evaluate water discharging from a spring in nearby North Star Gulch, according to its budget report.

Byrne said on Friday that the mine tunnel is at risk of further collapse due to “degraded ground support,” and collapses can result in large surges of toxic waste.

“Contaminated water can collect behind a collapse and may be released in an uncontrolled manner if not addressed,” he said.

Josh Johnson, Central Idaho conservation associate for the Idaho Conservation League, said in a Wednesday statement that without additional actions, consequences could include “impounded mine water” building up and “releasing contaminants through springs in the surrounding area, or even worse, in a catastrophic blowout.”

Byrne, however, noted that the DEQ has made a “lot of progress” slowing the discharge emanating from the mine, which used to flow at 200 gallons per minute and now flows around seven gallons per minute.

In a previous email to the Idaho Mountain Express, DEQ Senior Mining Scientist Don Carpenter said that the water discharging from the mine’s tunnel still does not meet current water quality standards.

Johnson called the ongoing mine cleanup “not Idaho’s biggest triumph.”

“It is encouraging to have cleanup efforts underway, but there’s a catch,” he said. “Idaho’s taxpayers are responsible for shouldering the millions of dollars of annual costs required to prevent an even larger environmental catastrophe—not the mining company.”

The Asarco Mining Company paid around $1.7 million to the DEQ three years ago to clean up the Triumph mine site after filing for bankruptcy.

“Triumph is unfortunately one of Idaho’s many examples for how mining can go very, very wrong and leave the taxpayers holding the bag,” Johnson wrote. “[W]hen these companies go bankrupt, but cleanup remains, the pollution is either never addressed or it is done at the expense of Idaho and Idahoans.”

Email the writer: ejones@mtexpress.com

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