Two miles inside the Bunker Hill Mine, where the air is so heavy it weighs down the eyelids, a small water treatment plant purrs away.
It isn’t a striking sight - just a gray control panel, some valves, and hoses leading into a canal of red, acid-laced water.
Despite modest designs, representatives of a Lynnwood, Wash., company are convinced the contraption - and a new sand-like formula they’re touting - will revolutionize the way mining companies deal with toxic emissions.
“I said I could prove to the world that we’d have clean water inside the mine,” said Klean Earth Environment Co. president Jimmy Andrews, his head-lamp bobbing in near darkness. “That’s exactly what we’ve done.”
There’s much at stake - especially in a state where the Environmental Protection Agency hit the Sunshine Mine with fines of $120,000 two weeks ago for violating the federal Clean Water Act. Just Thursday, the agency levied another $40,000 fine against a mining company in southern Idaho for similar violations.
Andrews claims his silica-based product - which he calls KB-1 - does more than just raise the pH of water flowing from hard-rock mines to healthy levels. He said it also encapsulates heavy metals such as lead and arsenic, rendering them harmless seconds after contact.
According to the company, KB-1 is designed to be used in water - while a similar agent called KB-SEA can be used to trap heavy metals in solid mine tailings.
“You have a silica shell that forms around each metal molecule, creating an impermeable layer,” said Jim Roma, KEECO vice president. “In effect, you’re transforming the metal ion into a grain of sand.”
Since February, the company has been tinkering with its system inside the Bunker Hill mine. Friday morning, mine owner Bob Hopper led reporters, officials from other mining companies, and representatives of a New York investment firm that may finance the new technology on a tour of the site.
Hopper said it didn’t take long to convince him that KB-1 was a good thing - far more effective than the lime that mines typically use to reduce acidity and help separate heavy metals from the run-off that seeps naturally through cracks and faults in porous rock.
“I’m optimistic,” Hopper said, his voice rising above the rhythmic din of a conveyor belt dropping the silica into the water stream.
“After you’ve worked with various applications over the years, you realize when something has merit,” he said. “After the first time, it was obvious this had merit.”
Hopper isn’t the only one singing the praises of KB-1. Bob Chatham, a professor of analytical chemistry at Montana Tech in Butte, said this is the best new remediation alternative he’s ever seen.
“I have a real belief that this has potential,” Chatham said, explaining that inside his laboratory, results from using both KB-1 and KB-SEA were impressive.
Chatham said water-borne heavy metals settle to the bottom of a holding tank in only 10 minutes after being treated with the silica product - compared with the two days it typically takes with lime. As a result, he said, it could eliminate much of the need for million-dollar water treatment facilities like the one operating below the Bunker Hill site.
KEECO’s product lacks definitive scientific proof that it will not leech the heavy metals once it comes into contact with them. In fact, Chatham admitted he still isn’t exactly certain how the compound works. But his studies show it won’t break down unless exposed to temperatures exceeding 1800 degrees or to rare man-made acids.
Mirroring enthusiastic company claims that the resulting silica could be used as garden soil, Chatham said the “bottom line is, it’s not a hazardous material.”
Judy Close, a senior environmental technician with Coeur d’Alene’s Hecla Mining Co., said she learned of the new technology just two weeks ago. She said her role in the Friday morning tour was merely a fact-finding mission.
Just the same, she emerged from the Bunker Hill mine after nearly three hours with optimistic words for KEECO.
“They have some really good technology here,” Close said, pulling off her hard hat with a hand colored with red soil. “I don’t know that it would replace our current system, but it could certainly be a portion of it.”