Hecla to pay for ’06 spill

THURSDAY, DEC. 4, 2008

Penalties for mining company top $100,000

BOISE – Hecla Mining Co., a North Idaho-based silver mining company, must pay an $85,000 penalty and buy $17,000 in emergency equipment for a local fire department after 22,500 gallons of hazardous mine tailings spilled from its lead and zinc complex near Mullan.

The spill in 2006 near the Lucky Friday Mine during a period of heavy rain deposited 900 gallons of liquid mill tailings and 191 pounds of solids into the South Fork Coeur d’Alene River.

The 117-year-old company said it has since undertaken measures to prevent a recurrence. It contends the spill caused no health impacts and said it agreed to the settlement to avoid “costly and prolonged appeals.”

Environmental Protection Agency regulators who announced the settlement of alleged federal Clean Water Act violations on Wednesday said Hecla failed to immediately report the accident.

“The health and safety of workers, responders and our communities depend on prompt spill reporting,” said Mike Bussell, director of the EPA’s office of compliance and enforcement in Seattle. “Effective spill response begins with timely notification, which allows local, state or federal responders to take action and reduce risks to public safety and the environment.”

In addition, the EPA said inspections on June 6, 2006, and on Nov. 16, 2006, discovered that Hecla had failed to adequately maintain onsite storm water controls, resulting in discharges that exceeded its permitted limits.

“Discharge permitting protects our nation’s waters,” Bussell said. If companies don’t abide by their permits, he said, “they will pay a penalty.”

More than a century of mining in the Coeur d’Alene Basin has been a mainstay of the region’s economy but also produced pollution whose cleanup has cost hundreds of millions, including removing and replacing some 3,000 lawns in the Silver Valley to prevent children from being exposed to lead pollution.

Hecla has owned and operated the Lucky Friday, a silver, lead and zinc mine that descends more than 6,000 feet below the surface, since 1958.

Vicki Veltkamp, a spokeswoman for Hecla in Coeur d’Alene, contends that the company reported the spill immediately, both to the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality and the EPA. She said that a differing interpretation of reporting requirements led to the EPA action.

“It is our practice to comply with all regulatory requirements,” Veltkamp said. “ … It is also important to note that in this case there was no environmental damage, no health impacts and no instream criteria violations.”

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