By Elizabeth Niven
Mining phosphate is an important part of Monsanto’s Roundup® herbicide production. The proposed Blackfoot Bridge Mine permit, in the southeast corner of Idaho, was approved this past July with a wave of support from the surrounding communities and endorsed by elected officials across the political spectrum. Most significantly, Monsanto’s phosphate mine approval was not appealed or challenged in court by environmental organizations.
Considering that approval for most mines in the United States includes some appeals and litigation, Monsanto was elated with the outcome.
Randy Vranes, Monsanto business unit lead for mineral activities in Soda Springs, Idaho, explained the new approach, which garnered successful results, “We went to the environmental and conservation community and asked, ‘How can we do this the best way possible?’ and then, we listened to them.”
In fact, The Boise Statesman noted that “the company reached out to the environmental community, as well as every other community interest it could find, in more than 88 individual meetings.”
“Up front,” said Vranes, “we agreed that we needed a protective system at the mine that allowed absolutely no impact to the Blackfoot River, a river that runs 600 feet from the base of the mine. We knew we didn’t have all the answers. We came forward with our best proposal and then asked for input. We wanted to take this way beyond industry standards by running what-if scenarios and responding with numerous solutions and backup measures.”
Public Lands Director John Robison at the Idaho Conservation League said, “While we didn’t agree on everything, we appreciated Monsanto being open to hearing our ideas through the planning process. The staff was willing to meet in person and go out in the field. We feel that as a result of this dialogue, the project is better than when it was first proposed.”
Out of the discussions, tours and community meetings emerged an advanced sustainability plan for mining and a multi-tiered water management system that includes: geosynthetic clay-liner laminates as a covering for backfilled pits and excavated materials that intercepts and redirects natural runoff and snowmelt to insure that such water sources do not come in contact with potentially leachable chemicals; a seepage management system that captures any waters that may have been exposed to leachable chemicals; and large-capacity lined ponds that allow such water to be managed so as to protect the natural environment.
The plan is designed with the objective of zero tolerance and modeled showing no impact on the watershed and soil for hundreds of years. The mine has an expected operating life span of 15 years. The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, acting as the state enforcer of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act or Clean Water Act, monitors the ongoing conditions at the mine to ensure that the measures put into place remain protective of the environment.
Toni Hardesty, director of the Idaho DEQ, said that they were impressed with the sizable effort that Monsanto put forth to engage the public in Soda Springs and Pocatello during the mine proposal preparation. “Monsanto provided an opportunity for DEQ to comment on the proposed mine and we agreed as to the types of protective measures to be used,” Hardesty said.
Monsanto also has an aggressive monitoring and measuring program at the site for two reasons: to decrease response time for any concerns, and to determine successful methods to protect watersheds and soil in other communities where they work. Mine sites that are not similar to Blackfoot Bridge would, of course, have different best practices designed to address their own unique environmental challenges.
During the public comment period on the mine’s draft environmental impact statement, the results in Idaho were 4,513 in support and only 69 against, for a 98 percent approval rating.
Mine development was given the “go ahead” from federal and state regulators on August 5, 2011. Work started almost immediately with construction of the water management system and support infrastructure currently underway. The environmental safeguards will be installed and the mine is expected to start producing phosphate ore sometime in the summer of 2013.
The mining process involves removal of large quantities of overburden materials, the part of the ground or hillside that is not phosphate ore, in order to extract the ore. This overburden is carefully handled and placed back into previously mined areas and then, Monsanto applies world-class reclamation, re-vegetation and land contour and shaping techniques that restore the land to near its original landform and capacity to support a biologically diverse ecosystem.
With the Blackfoot Bridge Mine, Monsanto will have long-term access to a critical raw material essential in the manufacture of Roundup® and a collaborative approach that may be the key to successful mineral development in the future.