A mining company agreed Wednesday to tighten environmental standards at a mine in northeastern Washington.
The company, Teck Cominco American, negotiated the stronger regulations with the state and three groups that challenged a wastewater permit Teck Cominco was issued for its Pend Oreille Mine, north of Metaline Falls.
The mine was reopened last year after being closed since 1977. In April 2004, the state Department of Ecology issued the mine’s wastewater discharge permit. The document was challenged by the Lands Council, the Washington Public Interest Research Group and the Okanogan Highlands Alliance.
The groups’ appeal of the permit to the state Pollution Control Hearings Board brought about negotiations and an agreement Wednesday.
“We have made a commitment to working with interested parties,” said Dave Godlewski, Teck Cominco’s manager of environmental public affairs. The agreement will add an extra “level of environmental performance that we have agreed to meet. Whatever it takes to do that, we will do that.”
The underground lead and zinc mine employs about 150 people. Teck Cominco American is a subsidiary of Teck Cominco Ltd., a Canadian company that is being sued by the Colville Confederated Tribes regarding waste in Lake Roosevelt from a British Columbian smelter.
One permit change for the Pend Oreille mine will require Teck Cominco to meet guidelines for the temperature of the treated wastewater it releases into the Pend Oreille River within five years. The older permit gave Teck Cominco 10 years.
Mike Petersen, executive director of the Lands Council, said hotter water hurts fish, especially westslope cutthroat trout and endangered bull trout. Ensuring that the mine’s wastewater temperature meets standards five years sooner could be critical, he said.
“If you think in terms of a fishery, five years is a long time,” Petersen said.
The new permit also will allow the environmental groups to comment on a Teck Cominco engineering report due this summer that will show how it will comply with certain discharge limits. The report will be submitted to the state for approval.
Another change in the permit will force the Department of Ecology to analyze and explain the size of the mine’s “mixing zone,” said Mo McBroom, staff attorney for Washington Public Interest Research Group.
A mixing zone is an area where waste is released and certain pollution limits can be exceeded. McBroom said the permit issued last year by the state created the largest mixing zone allowed under the law.
“My hope is that Ecology will take the time to review the size and make sure that it’s absolutely minimized,” McBroom said. “The settlement will help ensure that the Department of Ecology does that.”