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Hecla agrees to $600,000 fine for pollution

Hecla Mining Co. has agreed to pay $600,000 in fines for releasing heavy metals and other pollution into the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River during a five-year period.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency documented about 500 violations of the company’s federal discharge permit at the Lucky Friday Mine in Mullan, Idaho, between 2009 and 2014.

One of the mine’s tailings ponds was seeping metal-laden water that flowed into a tributary of the South Fork, according to the EPA. Another violation resulted from stormwater runoff problems during the construction of a new tailings pond. Sediment in the stormwater destroyed the water intake at the Hale Fish Hatchery in Mullan, which produces rainbow trout for stocking local streams. No fish were at the hatchery when the violation occurred, said Mark MacIntyre, an EPA spokesman.

Some of the violations involved failing to report problems to the EPA properly.

“We don’t agree with all the allegations made by EPA, but we do agree it’s in the best interest to settle and move on,” said Luke Russell, Hecla’s vice president of external affairs. “We take environmental responsibilities seriously.”

Some of the 2009 violations were related to initial operations at a new wastewater treatment plant, Russell said. The plant is designed to remove more lead and zinc than its predecessor. Hecla also disputes some of the EPA’s allegations of stormwater violations, saying the discharges were covered by the company’s stormwater permit, Russell said.

The South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River has been polluted with heavy metals from more than a century of mining in Idaho’s Silver Valley. Fish can’t live in some tributaries.

“The last thing rivers like the South Fork Coeur d’Alene need are unpermitted discharges and permit violations,” said Ed Kowalski, the EPA’s director of compliance and enforcement in Seattle.

The Lucky Friday Mine is the largest contributor of heavy metal pollution to the South Fork upstream of Mullan. The mine’s federal permit is designed to help protect and restore the aquatic health of the South Fork, Kowalski said.

The $600,000 fine was negotiated among Hecla, the EPA and the U.S. Department of Justice. Companies can be fined up to $16,000 per violation, but fines vary based on the severity of the offense.

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