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'Pioneering' plan for scarred Idaho tract may rock industry

YELLOW PINE, Idaho — Twenty-five miles out, the road turns to gravel and follows a creek to the closest thing to a speck of a town in what might be the most remote place in the Lower 48.

Turning right at the Corner, which offers the last hot meal until Montana, 100 miles of wilderness away, the road reaches the Salmon River and then hugs the edge of the canyon for a heart-pounding 14 miles until it arrives at the Stibnite Mining District.

Stibnite, a mining hotbed since 1899, is where a Canadian company envisions a different future for mining and where environmentalists see the same old calamity.

Midas Gold Corp. plans to build one of the country's biggest open-pit mines on 2,000 acres near the source of the Salmon, known as the "River of No Return" and famed for its fishing, whitewater and solitude, in a region already scarred by decades of mining.

Ninety percent of the mineral antimony that hardened Allied bullets during World War II came from the mine that gave birth to Stibnite, a once-bustling company town that had a bowling alley and ski hill. But peacetime created a ghost town and left a lake called the "Glory Hole" filling the old mining pit that had already exterminated salmon upstream.

A carousel of gold-mining companies came next, disfiguring swaths of forest and generating toxic waste. In 1996, the last miners skipped town, leaving taxpayers with a massive cleanup bill.

"Mining does not have a great reputation," said Laurel Sayer, CEO of Midas' Idaho subsidiary.

Mining companies routinely promise environmental responsibility, but Midas has made confronting the industry's notorious past part of its omnipresent sales pitch here: "Restore the Site."

"Mining broke Stibnite, and mining should be the ones who pay and fix it," said Midas Community Education Manager Hayley Couture.

With "Restore Stibnite" stitched on her hat, the 26-year-old geologist is part of the company's earnest, all-out blitz to convince Valley County that mining can heal, not just hire.

"It is a great public relations theme," Sayer conceded, "but we really believe it."

And the rest of the industry is watching closely.

"This pioneering approach will definitely inspire others to consider whether it is feasible at other mining operations," said Katie Sweeney, the National Mining Association's general counsel.

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