Illegal discharges from the Sunshine Mine represent a tiny fraction of the pollution in the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River.
In fact, legal and illegal discharges from the mine are less than 1/100th of 1 percent of the total amount of zinc, lead and cadmium in the South Fork, according to the Idaho Division of Environmental Quality.
“Compared with what’s coming out of a lot of non-point sources up there that are not permitted, it’s pretty small,” said Geoff Harvey, water analyst for the agency.
Yet the mine faces a $125,000 fine from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is becoming less tolerant of Clean Water Act violations committed by mining operations.
“I’m not going to complain about it, and I’m not going to apologize for it either,” said Harry Cougher, Sunshine Mine’s vice president and head of mining. “We seriously are doing the best we can, and we’re striving to do better. If we exceed (discharge limits), we try to take our lumps and do better next time.” , The mine had 49 violations, according to the EPA, involving discharges of seven different metals to Big Creek or the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River.
The mine exceeded its allowed limit for zinc just once, however. Zinc is the main pollutant of concern in the South Fork, and is lethal to fish.
EPA compliance officer Jim Corpuz acknowledged that Sunshine Mining and Refining Co. has done a good job of identifying problems at its Silver Valley mine and making repairs. The company hasn’t violated it’s discharge permit in the past two or three months, he said.
“They have some very stringent limits in their permit, which makes it look worse than it is,” Corpuz said from his Seattle office.
Despite the good-faith effort of the company to correct problems, the discharge violations went on for five years.
“You have to do something to get their attention,” Corpuz said. “We couldn’t just say, ‘OK, we’ll forget it.”’
The EPA is deliberately taking a closer look at water quality problems at mine sites in Idaho, particularly in the Coeur d’Alene area, where historic mine pollution prompted a federal lawsuit last year against area mining companies.
“It’s something the region has put more emphasis on recently,” Corpuz said. “The (EPA) region has dedicated some resources in looking at the problems.”
“I’m not liked by many people in the area,” he added.
In January, Hecla Mining Co. agreed to pay a $21,250 fine and spend $1.5 million on water treatment systems after the EPA filed a complaint against the company over water quality violations at its Grouse Creek Mine in central Idaho.
It was the first water quality fine against an Idaho mine in several years, said Dave Tomten, an EPA geologist in Boise.
“We have fairly high expectations of mining companies,” he said. “They have environmental staffs. They should be able to prevent them (illegal discharges).”
The technology to identify pollutants is so advanced, and permits are so stringent, that a violation can be a pretty minor pollution event, said Hecla spokeswoman Vicki Veltkamp.
“Quite often the water being released from our mines is cleaner than what’s coming down the mountains,” she said.
Sunshine Mining and Refining Co. will be meeting with the EPA to negotiate a lower fine, Cougher said. Some of their violations occurred during the 1996 floods, and some he said were “false positive” measurements, he said.
“I don’t want to make light of this,” he added. “It’s a serious situation, and we will address it.”
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