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Crown Receives “Get Out Of Jail Free” Card From Ecology

Instead of paying $395,000 for the penalty issued by Ecology in July 2012 for water quality permit violations at the Buckhorn Mine, Crown Resources will pay $80,000 and do $180,000 worth of supplemental remediation projects in the area, yet undetermined. While this is not exactly “free,” considering there have been and continue to be millions of dollars worth of violations that Ecology has agreed not to enforce, Ecology’s actions are a generous forgiveness of responsibility. Crown has agreed to use its best effort to meet a timeline for implementing the NPDES renewal, but there is no consequence for failing to meet the deadline of November 1, 2013, which as of this time has already been delayed twice and the new target is February 1, 2014. In fact, Crown retains the right to appeal the permit once it is issued, although Ecology has expressed that if Crown did appeal the permit, Ecology would consider it a breach of a good faith effort to comply with the terms of the settlement.

In addition, Crown and Ecology agreed to what they call a binding commitment to: 1) process and schedule issuance of the new NPDES permit, 2) allocate cost recovery funds to reimburse Ecology for 1.5 staff people to oversee permit and water quality compliance issues at the mine, 3) a schedule to bring the mine into compliance with the current NPDES permit, and 4) a dispute resolution process for this agreement and the new NPDES permit.

The majority of the problems with the settlement are found, from OHA’s point of view, in a section entitled, “Water Quality Protection Program.” This section provides a list of activities that Crown has undertaken that were supposed to protect water quality and comply with the permit; however, these attempts have obviously not worked. The section continues with a list of activities the company plans to undertake. Unfortunately, there is little in the way of concrete action, and none of the activities address the main problem of the underground mine leaking contaminants into ground and surface water, i.e., failure to maintain a groundwater capture zone[1].

Get out of jail free
Despite this major shortcoming, Ecology has used this inadequate and ineffective list of actions as justification for granting Crown interim effluent standards and a compliance schedule in the new permit. In addition, Ecology has agreed not to take additional enforcement action regarding known violations that occurred before the penalty settlement.

It is anticipated that the new NPDES permit will include more stringent effluent limits, capture zone standards and discharge requirements, and that these new standards, particularly background-based groundwater standards, have the potential to put Crown into immediate noncompliance when the new permit is issued. However, Ecology agreed to an interim compliance schedule to allow Crown some time to come into compliance.

Ecology has also acquiesced by reversing course from its previous position that the capture zone designated in the 2006 FSEIS is a “line in the sand.” For the sake of settling Crown’s penalty appeal, Ecology has accepted expanding the capture zone to include a dewatering well which they consider to have been a mistake, and which many agree actually draws mine contaminants away from the mine.

While Ecology retains full authority to issue enforcement orders and to evaluate compliance with the permit, the Settlement Agreement, and the Agreed Order, the penalty settlement reinforces why OHA finds it important to file a citizen lawsuit under the Clean Water Act, seeking long-term protection of the water on Buckhorn Mountain.  Read more in the Fall 2013 Buckhorn Bulletin

1.  A groundwater capture zone is the area in which any mine-related contaminants are captured by mine water management, rather than being released to the environment without treatment.