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Cobalt mine officially opening Friday in Salmon-Challis National Forest

This is the only mine in the U.S. primarily producing cobalt, which is a key material used to make electric vehicle batteries.

BOISE, Idaho — The Gem State is home to the Idaho Cobalt Belt, which is one of the biggest cobalt deposits in the U.S.

Cobalt is a metal often used to make batteries for electric vehicles. Since demand for EVs are rapidly growing, so is demand for cobalt.

“Having a source of cobalt here in the U.S., if it's able to be mined responsibly, you know, is an important thing and not something that should be taken lightly,” Idaho Conservation League senior conservation associate, Josh Johnson said.

The cobalt deposit in Idaho drew the attention of Australian-based mining company, Jervois. Their project, Idaho Cobalt Operations, officially opens on Friday.

Mine manager Matt Lengerich said they have already been mining for over a year, but this ceremony is a chance for the company to recognize how far they have come.

So far, Lengerich said they have 8,000 feet of underground tunnel created. The mine will run for seven years, although that number might increase depending on the amount of cobalt found.

Lengerich said they are producing something called cobalt concentrate.

“It comes out in a form that looks about like sand,” Lengerich said. “That cobalt comes out at about 2,000 tons per year. So, over the course of seven years, we'll produce a little more than 16,000 tons.”

16,000 tons of cobalt means a lot of batteries. He said Idaho Cobalt Operations has the ability to supply roughly 400,000 electric vehicles a year, which adds up to about 2.8 million during the life of the mine.

About 70% of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Johnson said. From there, it is refined in China and later used for batteries. 

Historically, he said miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo work in poor conditions. There are even documented instances of child labor.

Something Johnson said simply cannot happen in the U.S. 

“If us as Americans want to be able to drive electric cars and feel good about our environmental impact, we need to be eyes wide open about where the raw materials for electric vehicles come from,” Johnson said.

The best way to feel good – mining locally, Johnson said. Not just mining locally, but making sure mining companies are held to high ethical and environmental standards.

This cobalt mine in Idaho is located near the inactive Blackbird Mine Site. The site was closed in 1982, after severely contaminating water nearby with heavy metals.

“It got to the point where Panther Creek, which is a main tributary to the Salmon River in this area, was basically devoid of aquatic life,” Johnson said. “Fish couldn't survive there, aquatic organisms, like little bugs and things couldn't survive there.”

Johnson said the waterways are now recovered and are home once again to fish, especially salmon, but repeating the past, is not something the conservation league is interested in.

Responsible mining plays a big part in preventing contamination of waterways and general pollution, Johnson said.

Lengerich said they are committed to keeping their environmental impact small.

“We have to recognize that that which can't be grown, we have to find a way to mine sustainably,” Lengerich said.

Jervois has rigorous monitoring programs in place, Lengerich said. So, if something were to happen, they could get on top of the issue fast.

In case the mining operation contaminates any water nearby – the company built a water treatment plant. Lengerich said they do not plan on using it; but it is there just in case.

To date, Jervois has given $300,000 to the Upper Salmon Conservation Action Program, which is fund jointly managed with the Idaho Conservation League, Johnson said. 

The fund goes toward watershed restoration projects. Johnson said the mining company will add $150,000 each year to the program.

Since mining is already underway, Lengerich said the next step is bringing the mineralized rock that contains cobalt out from underground. Eventually, cobalt concentrate will be sent to a refinery in Brazil – there is no cobalt refinery in the U.S.

Lengerich said they expect to start shipping cobalt from the refinery later this year.

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