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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Hecla loses bid for variance on effluent

Hecla Mining Co. has been denied a variance to discharge more heavy metals into the Coeur d’Alene River from the Lucky Friday mine near Mullan, Idaho.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Seattle office formally signed the denial Wednesday. A variance would have allowed Hecla to release – for up to five years – more metals to the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River than allowed in its current National Pollutant Discharge Elimination permit.

“We’re very disappointed to hear the news,” said Paul Glader, Hecla’s manager of environmental services.

Hecla petitioned the EPA in 2001, saying that compliance would result in “substantial economic hardship” because the company would have to build a $5.5 million water treatment plant.

The mining company also said it couldn’t meet federal standards limiting cadmium, lead and zinc that are designed to protect fish in cold-water streams. Other nonmining pollution and hydrologic diversions in the South Fork prevented the river from attaining cold-water fishery status, Hecla argued.

The EPA said it “carefully reviewed” Hecla’s request but found that the company failed to demonstrate that it qualified for a variance on any grounds.

Hecla has five years to comply with the stricter effluent limits, said the EPA’s Lisa Macchio.

Hecla’s variance request came after Idaho officials agreed to “site specific” mine discharge limits for the river that were laxer than federal “gold book” standards for cadmium, lead and zinc.

In August 2003, the EPA issued a revised permit for the Lucky Friday mine, based on the Idaho standards. Hecla appealed, staying the new limits until the EPA ruled on the variance request.

The EPA was pushed into issuing the new Hecla permit by a federal lawsuit. Two environmental groups, the Spokane-based Lands Council and the Idaho Conservation League, sued in November 2002, saying the EPA had failed to issue an updated water pollution permit for the Lucky Friday for 22 years.

The mine is the largest single polluter in Idaho, the groups said in their complaint.

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