By Jack Healy and Mike Baker
© The New York Times Co.
YELLOW PINE, IDAHO » Net in hand, Louis Reuben waded into the frigid waters where his ancestors once fished, long before Idaho’s rivers were dammed and contaminated, before the Nez Perce were driven off their land when white miners struck gold.
“They used to say you could walk across the river on the backs of salmon,” he said one rainy autumn morning as he tallied and measured the depleted stocks of young Chinook salmon that hatch in these mountain creeks. “Now, it’s totally different. It’s devastating, if you think about it.”
President Joe Biden came into office vowing to safeguard Native American resources like these and uphold the rights of tribes that have endured generations of land theft and broken treaties. But in the rolling headwaters of central Idaho, where mining interests have long overrun tribal rights, the administration’s promise is colliding with one of its other priorities: starting a revolution in renewable energy to confront climate change.
Deep in the Salmon River Mountains, an Idaho mining company, Perpetua Resources, is proposing a vast open-pit gold mine that would also produce 115 million pounds of antimony — an element that may be critical to manufacturing the high-capacity liquid-metal batteries of the future.
As it seeks the Biden administration’s approval for its mining plans on federal lands, Perpetua is waging an aggressive campaign to cast itself as an ally in a new clean-energy economy. It says its Stibnite Gold Project would be the only American mine to produce antimony, which now largely comes from China, and would supply the metal to a Bill Gatesbacked startup that makes batteries that could one day store energy on solar-powered electricity grids.
“It’s responsible, modern mining,” Mckinsey Lyon, a Perpetua vice president, said as she led a tour up to the dormant mining site, still contaminated by decades of mining. She said Perpetua would clean up the mountainous basin while extracting “minerals our country needs for energy security.”
The Biden administration has warned that failing to expand the nation’s supply of rare-earth minerals, including antimony, could present a risk to the nation’s energy and military preparedness. But deposits of antimony in the United States, unlike the one in Idaho, are generally small, and some of them are locked away in mines that have been shuttered for decades.
Perpetua has begun a Washington campaign to press its case. In Idaho, it has made direct promises of money to neighboring communities, contingent on the project’s success.
The clean-energy public relations campaign is the newest threat to the Nez Perce, who for generations have watched fish populations decline and pollution rise. Mining interests drove them out of their homelands and fouled their rivers and ancestral hunting grounds. For a community trying to preserve its culture and kinship with the territory, an effort that has involved millions of dollars invested in restoring fish stocks, the proposed mine represents another existential threat.
A review by the Environmental Protection Agency found that Perpetua’s proposed 20-year operation would inflict “disproportionately high and adverse impacts” on tribes, according to a November 2020 letter from the agency, and environmental groups have warned that the mine could damage or destroy huge swaths of fish habitat.
The Nez Perce are not alone. Across the American West, tribal nations are on the front lines of a new debate over how to balance the needs and costs of clean energy. Extracting the fuels of the future is a process that is often far from clean, and just as fights over the environmental costs of oil exploration helped define the fossil fuel era, conflicts like this one are creating the battle lines of the next energy revolution.
The push to unearth new minerals presents a hard choice for the Biden administration in politically divided Western states where mining remains an important source of jobs and political power. The choices are destined to grow more challenging as commodities like lithium, copper, cobalt and antimony become more valuable, and critical to the nation’s future.
Perpetua says its Idaho mine holds enough antimony to one day power 1 million homes using hulking batteries that would capture and release energy created by solar farms. Perpetua and its partner, battery-maker Ambri, say the batteries would last for 20 years and lose little of their power-storing capacity over their lifetimes, potentially revolutionizing America’s power grids.
But the batteries are a new technology that have yet to prove their effectiveness in the real world. And it will likely be at least another five years before any Perpetua project is able to deliver any antimony to be made into batteries.
In the Santa Rita Mountains in Arizona, a Canadian mining company that is seeking federal approval to dig an open-pit mine over the objections of the Tohono O’odham, Pascua Yaqui and Hopi people has said its copper will provide “the key element to our green energy future.”
The tribes say the mines would damage their hunting and fishing lands, siphon scarce water and desecrate burial grounds and ceremonial sites.
In Nevada, the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone are protesting a mining company’s efforts to blast apart a dormant volcano to dig for lithium — a critical mineral used in batteries for electric cars. In the Big Sandy River Valley in Arizona, another lithium mining project could destroy a hot spring considered sacred by the Hualapai Tribe.
An hour outside of Phoenix, leaders of the San Carlos Apache have been reaching out to Democratic leaders to stop a copper mining project that the tribe says would destroy a swath of sacred ground called Oak Flat. The British-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto wants to dig an underground copper mine that would create a mile-wide crater in the earth, which Apache people say would destroy land where they pray and hold four-day ceremonies to usher girls into womanhood.
The Biden administration delayed the project by withdrawing an environmental review that was fast-tracked in the final days of the Trump administration. But the tribe wants the project killed.
The Biden administration already has put limits on exploration, going to court to disrupt the Pebble Mine project in Alaska and barring new oil and gas leases in Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. Other projects are also getting renewed scrutiny, but the administration has not closed any doors.
Members of the San Carlos Apache and other tribes have filed lawsuits to fight the mines, but they face a legal system forged by century-old laws and court decisions that have favored the mining companies.
In Idaho, a 19th-century treaty between the Nez Perce and the U.S. government could prove critical to the fight against the Stibnite Gold Project.
The Nez Perce historically had a network of villages across some 16 million acres, from the ridge of the Bitterroot Mountains in the east to the Blue Mountains in the west. But as settlers poured in along the Oregon Trail, the federal government and the Nez Perce struck a treaty in 1855.
The Nez Perce gave up about half of their ancestral lands while retaining a right to hunt and fish in their “usual and accustomed places.”
Soon after, though, gold was discovered within the reservation. With prospectors flocking to the region, the U.S. government initiated a new treaty negotiation that shrank the reservation by 90%. Among the Nimiipuu, as tribe members refer to themselves, the 1863 agreement became known as the Steal Treaty.
With dams, mining, pollution and development now spread through much of the land, salmon — the signature species that has always been a bedrock of the environment in the Pacific Northwest — are struggling. Just 44 adult sockeye salmon completed the 900-mile journey this year from the Pacific Ocean to the Sawtooth Basin in Idaho. The Nez Perce now spend millions of dollars each year on restoration efforts, with hatcheries, testing and trucks to carry salmon past dams that produce some of the region’s hydroelectric power.
The Nez Perce and environmental activists say the mine will do lasting damage over the next 20 years.
Perpetua has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars wooing nearby communities and burnishing its image as a mining company that can help produce the technology to wean America off fossil fuels.
The company’s largest shareholder is billionaire investor John Paulson, a supporter of former President Donald Trump, but Perpetua has reached across the aisle to lobby politicians in Washington. The company has spent $200,000 on Washington, D.C., lobbyists who include a former Obama energy-policy official and an aide to former Sen. Harry Reid, a powerful Nevada Democrat with deep ties to the mining industry.
The U.S. Forest Service, which has the authority to greenlight the mine, is conducting another environmental review of the project after the company changed its mining plans. An earlier analysis released during the Trump administration was criticized by conservation groups and other federal agencies as flawed and full of holes. The Trump administration had allowed the company, then known as Midas Gold, to write the biological assessment for its own project.
“The Forest Service continues to work with the mine proponent, cooperating agencies and other stakeholders regarding concerns about fisheries and aquatic-related issues,” the Forest Service said in a statement. The agency said it was “making every effort to mitigate for concerns expressed by the tribes.”
Perpetua says its updated plans would shrink the size of the site by about 13% and reduce higher water temperatures — which can be deadly for fish — by planting trees and bushes. The new environmental analysis is expected early this year, and could be the starting point for years of lawsuits and regulatory fights.