Idaho to the rescue.
Miners near Yellow Pine had been trying to get rich from gold mines there off and on since the late 1890s. Then, in 1941, persistent gold hounds found a rich tungsten vein. And now, the need for antimony, also in plentiful supply at the site, suddenly increased.
Gold took a back seat to the minerals needed for the war with the military stepping in to focus mining efforts. The mine, near the town of Stibnite, was set to produce about half the tungsten required for armoring tanks and other equipment, and a significant percentage of antimony for ammunition would come from the Idaho mine.
How important was the mine? According to the United States Munitions Board, “the discovery of that tungsten mine at Stibnite, Idaho, in 1942 shortened World War II by at least one year and saved the lives of a million American soldiers.”
The Stibnite Mine—stibnite is another word for antimony—continued through the Korean War, supplying crucial metal to the military.
Saving “a million American soldiers” wasn’t without cost to the environment. Tailings from mining operations have been leaching arsenic and antimony into ground and surface water for decades. The East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon River, which flows through the abandoned Yellow Pine mining pit, is effectively blocked. Salmon, bull trout, and chinook can no longer migrate to their historic spawning grounds.
Between 2000 and 2012, agreements were signed, absolving former operators and governmental entities from responsibility for future environmental conditions at Stibnite. This olly olly oxen-free left an enormous mess in the mountains of Idaho with no one on the hook for cleaning it up.
Mining Today at Stibnite
Perpetua Resources wants to mine gold and antimony at the Stibnite site. They also want to begin cleaning up the old mine site. The company signed an agreement with the EPA and the Forest Service to spend over $12 million on clean-up. Perpetua has already rerouted three streams around legacy waste, and they have begun moving 325,000 tons of waste out of the river.
The cleanup project, which involves temporarily rerouting the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon River through a bypass tunnel, will open up 20 miles of fish habitat.
A Critical Mineral, Again
Today, history is repeating itself. Antimony is still needed by the military, and China, Russia, and Tajikistan control approximately 90% of the world's supply. The United States has no domestically mined source of antimony. Its importance in munitions hasn’t waned, and now it is a critical mineral for some types of high-capacity batteries. In 2022, the Department of Defense (DOD) granted Perpetua nearly $29 million to complete environmental and engineering studies necessary to obtain a Final Environmental Impact Statement, a Final Record of Decision, and other ancillary permits. In August of 2023, DOD awarded Perpetua up to $15.5 million to demonstrate a fully domestic antimony supply chain.
During World War II, Idaho’s Stibnite Mine proved to be critical on the world stage. It could be again. This mining project is meant to mitigate the environmental damage from previous operations. That’s good. But. state and federal regulators will still need to monitor the modern mine to ensure that environmental damage is minimal.