Can Idaho’s newest cobalt mine dig responsibly?
After millions in environmental cleanup, Idaho’s cobalt hotspot is welcoming its first new mining outfit in 40 years. Can it dig up the essential metal without leaving a trace?
DEEP WITHIN the Salmon-Challis National Forest of central Idaho, the remnants of the Blackbird Mine lie among 830 acres of steep-walled canyons thick with soaring conifers. Dirt roads slash through patches of forest, and a 12-acre open pit, roughly the size of nine football fields, remains as a reminder of a bygone era. Abandoned tunnels snake beneath a retaining pool that brims with a watery sludge of metallic deposits.
For several decades in the middle of the 20th century, Blackbird was the primary US producer of cobalt, a metal essential in the manufacture of Cold War–era jet engines. After years of on-again, off-again operations, the site closed in 1982, when the price of cobalt dropped too low for the operation to be profitable. Today, the shuttered mine constitutes a 10,000-plus-acre Superfund site, the designation bestowed by the Environmental Protection Agency on areas of extreme contamination. Since 1995, a consortium of past and present owners has worked to remediate the damage, including by treating dirty H2O before it’s discharged into nearby Blackbird Creek. Speaking to The Atlantic last fall, a water-quality specialist for the US Geological Survey said the site is much cleaner than in the 1990s, when he first visited.
Now the swath of land known as the Idaho Cobalt Belt is about to welcome its first new mine in 40 years. The 37-mile strip of sedimentary rock about 6 hours from Boise contains one of the country’s largest beds of the silver-gray metal. Jervois Global, a nearly 60-year-old Australian outfit that’s also developing a project to dig up the element in the state of New South Wales, expects to begin excavating cobalt from a new site before the end of 2022.
Cobalt is one of the metals necessary for the lithium-ion batteries that power electric cars, each vehicle requiring around 30 pounds of the stuff. Global operations dig up more than 180,000 tons annually, but as the market for lithium-ion power increases, so too will the need for cobalt. According to a report from the European Union published in 2018, if no new technologies hit the market, yearly demand for the metal will reach nearly 430,000 tons by 2030. By then, some 100 million electric vehicles will be cruising the world’s roadways, according to global research firm Wood Mackenzie. While state geologists say it’s anybody’s guess just how much cobalt is locked away in the belt, Jervois estimates its mine could produce more than 2,000 tons every year—enough for tens of thousands of batteries.
Yet new activity is awakening old concerns, especially among local groups leerily watching developments within the state’s cobalt honeypot. The Blackbird Mine’s big sin was “open-pit” digging that allowed noxious byproducts to contaminate the local ecosystem. On the other hand, the new mine that Jervois is nearly done constructing is entirely underground—which helps avoid side effects that can come from exposing fresh earth to the elements—and one of the first buildings erected on-site was a water-treatment plant.
Josh Johnson of the Idaho Conservation League, a mining watchdog for almost 50 years, can’t help but point out that the only thing physically separating Jervois Global’s soon-to-open mine from the shuttered Blackbird is a single mountain. “The best we can hope for is responsible mining,” he says. “That’s what we hear a lot from the mining companies. You talk that you can have a modern mine that has minimal impacts? Well, let’s see it.”
Mining, however, is part of ushering in an electric future. “We can’t just put electricity in our pockets,” says Claudio Berti, director of the Idaho Geological Survey. “New technology needs critical minerals. And so, unfortunately, mining is an integral part of a greener future.”
But underregulated operations like those in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the globe’s No. 1 cobalt producer, demonstrate the dangers of digging without regard for either employees or locals, who work in and live among claustrophobic shafts and polluted soil. Jervois hopes its operation in Idaho will model a better way—by bringing a more thought-out process to the US and planning for cleanup long before the first hunk of ore ever gets dragged out of the ground.
PROSPECTING IS nothing new to the American West: There was the search for gold in California, then silver in Nevada. During the Gilded Age of the late 1800s, as cities electrified buildings and streets, deep-pocketed industrialists stormed into Montana, eager to corner the market on the highly conductive copper that was elemental to funneling electrons. They all left behind scarred geographies. The Berkeley Pit in Butte, for one, is so contaminated by heavy metals and sulfuric acid that, in 2016, an unlucky flock of several thousand geese landed on its surface, drank some of the poisoned water, and soon died. Like Blackbird, it is a Superfund site.
“We have landscapes that have been turned to moonscapes and contamination left behind that will have to be managed for centuries,” says Aimee Boulanger, executive director of the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, an organization that sets standards for the independent auditing of industrial-scale extraction operations.
During the heyday of the Blackbird Mine in the 1950s, there were no federal environmental checks. The Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and National Environmental Policy Act—the last of which lays out a process for public notice and public comment before new operations can set up shop—all became law in the early 1970s. Still, Boulanger would argue that no country in the world has laws sufficient to protect the environment from extraction efforts. “The vast majority of money that’s gone into mining is to get smaller grades of ore out of rock,” she says, referring to deposits with lower concentrations of minerals that companies would nonetheless love to get out of the ground before shutting down a mine. “It’s not been ‘How do we put the earth back?’”
That tightrope is one that Jervois Global now carefully walks as it creates a key component of a cobalt supply chain in the Western US. The firm has bought refineries in Brazil and Finland in the past year; the mine in Idaho is the missing link.
Extraction with an eye toward preserving the landscape is top of mind for the company, according to Matt Lengerich, executive general manager of mining. He’s an industry veteran of 23 years who was brought on in August 2021 to head up the Idaho operation. Before Jervois, he worked for the Rio Tinto company, where, among other duties, he managed the Bingham Canyon copper mine near Salt Lake City.
Other international firms are interested in Idaho’s stash of cobalt, but Jervois has a head start. In 2019, it acquired a 2,500-acre claim in the cobalt belt from previous owners who had gone to the trouble of getting permitted by the US Forest Service back in 2009. Therefore, the area has already undergone an environmental impact study. The assessment recommended ways to reduce water pollution, one of which is backfilling the underground mine workings with a cement made from waste rock—keeping groundwater away from contaminants that could leach into streams and lakes.
Even though the Jervois site has yet to open, it is already on a better environmental footing than Blackbird by virtue of being underground. Subterranean mines use tunnels to reach densely packed concentrations of minerals. The shuttered Blackbird Mine had shafts, but it also used so-called open-pit methods to locate cobalt deposits. Open pits are what they sound like: massive holes—sometimes a mile wide and thousands of feet deep—with large amounts of waste-ridden soil and rock piled up nearby.
Reclaiming mine sites that rely on such methods can be far more challenging than reclaiming underground ones, notes state geologist Berti. The process of making the land look as it did pre-mining of course comes after all the material has been extracted. The problem, no surprise, is more complex than simply filling in holes. In the first place, digging kicks off a real-time science experiment: Rock, now exposed to the atmosphere, begins to oxidize, which gives embedded metals a chance to leach into nearby sources of water, killing aquatic life. What’s more, because cobalt ores also contain sulfur, water moving through a mine’s waste piles can carry sulfuric acid into nearby streams. Remediation at Blackbird, which is ongoing, has already cost roughly $100 million.
“An underground mine has less visual impact,” Berti says. “You see a portal, you see a building for a mill, a ventilation shaft, and that’s pretty much it.” Federal regulations require Jervois to post a bond—likely worth around $30 million—to go toward cleanup efforts once the mine closes, which should be around 2030. To minimize environmental trauma, the company also built a water-treatment plant and has a system on the property to capture groundwater and pump it to the plant for cleaning. According to Jim Kuipers, an independent mining industry expert and consulting engineer, these types of safeguards are common features these days.
If there’s a sales pitch to be made for responsible mining, it comes from Lengerich. He’s quick to tout his outdoorsy bona fides (he grew up in Colorado, where he became an avid mountain biker and fly fisherman) and his residency in the town of Salmon, inside the Idaho Cobalt Belt.
“From the very start, there’s been a real focus to make sure that everything we’re doing is taking into account the impact to water and how we mitigate risks,” he argues. “In 30 years, I’d expect you to stand on this property and have no idea that we were ever here.”
AS LENGERICH makes the roughly 90-minute drive from his home to work, craggy canyons and lush green fir trees are in full view. At the Jervois mine, buildings mark the job site, including the water-treatment plant and a set of prefabricated houses to lodge the miners who will travel underground to extract cobalt. There are also facilities to store tailings (aka ore residue) and water. As a show of its commitment, Jervois has made an agreement with the Idaho Conservation League to allocate $150,000 every year to preservation projects in the region. “Mining has had a big environmental impact in a lot of places,” says the league’s Johnson. “This is a way to create an additional conservation benefit.”
If all goes according to plan, excavation will start by the fall and scale up through the end of 2022. When fully operational, the site should be able to get as many as 4 million pounds of cobalt out of the ground every year—enough for more than 130,000 electric-car batteries.
Still, those figures are paltry relative to the amount of cobalt mined by the world’s leading producers. Jervois’ home turf of Australia ranks third, but the undisputed leader is the Democratic Republic of the Congo at around 70 percent of the worldwide supply. In 2021, mines there produced more than 200 million pounds, most of which was sent to refining and processing plants in China.
US manufacturers have therefore had to rely on China and other countries to get the cobalt they need to power not only electric vehicles but the laptops on which so many Americans are dependent. “The biggest reason to mine in Idaho is for strategic purposes,” says mining consultant Kuipers. Sourcing cobalt in the state, even for just a few years, could give the US more control over the metals in its electrification supply chain. Once the cobalt is mined, Jervois will purify it, grind it down into a sandlike material, and ship it to its plant in Brazil, which will refine the metal so it’s ready for practical use—and for sale in US markets. “While it could be sold to other countries,” Lengerich says, “it’s part of our strategy to bring that metal back into the US for US consumption.”
There’s another reason to mine cobalt here, though: to avoid participating in nefarious operations elsewhere. Most of the extraction in the DRC is conducted by large-scale industrial mines, which are not circumscribed by the same set of environmental regulations that Jervois contends with in the US. In the DRC, water pollution and soil contamination, which lead to both damaged landscapes and crops, are the casualties in the race toward profitable mining.
Then there’s the social impact. More than 2 million DRC residents make their living from small-scale mining. These operations represent about one-third of the country’s total cobalt production, and they are notorious for human rights and health concerns. Many are poorly ventilated and unsafe. As many as 35,000 child laborers might be employed at any one time, according to a report published by the World Economic Forum in 2020. Mining concerns also displace farmers and poison local sources of drinking water.
In the Idaho Cobalt Belt, it’s hard to say if mining truly has been fixed, since it’s yet to restart. But a hopeful blueprint is there for mining companies to follow: Pulling cobalt out of the ground in a responsible way means looking to the long-term health of the environment and the people nearby and making sure the land is returned, as closely as possible, to its original state.
“We do have to look for ways and places we can responsibly mine some of these important metals,” the conservation league’s Johnson says. “Again, it comes down to: Can you actually pull it off? We’re never going to feel entirely comfortable about an operation until we see it go all the way through its life cycle.”
This story originally ran in the Summer 2022 Metal issue of PopSci, as the first in a three-part series about batteries. Read part two and part three next. Or check out more PopSci+ stories.