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Permit Enforcement Needed

Buckhorn Mine with Mt Baldy in background

The continuous permit violations at the Buckhorn Mine are causing consternation among those following the situation and the requirements. The Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology) has the responsibility to uphold the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. OHA has suggested corrective actions that would increase the understanding of the contaminant flows at the mine site and lead to long-term solutions to the water quality problems on Buckhorn Mountain.

The permit violations are numerous and are both procedural and numeric. The permit clearly states that the mine must provide Ecology with plans that guide actions, including adaptive management, monitoring, and closure, and that these plans must be approvable or approved by Ecology. The mining company has submitted plans, but they are lacking appropriate triggers, benchmarks, actions, and evaluation processes needed for Ecology to approve them. The lack of appropriate management tools to address the water quality problems at the mine has lead to continuous illegal discharge of mine contaminants into the environment. In addition, mining operations have ended and reclamation of the site is well underway without an approved closure plan. The closure plan that Crown submitted to Ecology lacks detail and was not approved, leaving the regulatory agency without a clear idea of what hydrologic reclamation activities are taking place and are planned at the mine site. 

On November 30, 2017, Ecology issued Notice of Violation (NOV) #15562 for water quality related violations during the third quarter of 2017. The water quality violations have continued unabated since Ecology issued the NOV. If Ecology would address the numerous procedural violations, it could help quell the numeric violations. History has shown that when Ecology provides remedial guidance and/or consequences, progress will be made in addressing these problems. Numerous actions could and should be taken to address the violations.  
Ecology should insist that Crown provide the agency with a critical investigation into the effectiveness of each mitigation measure it has implemented as part of the settlement of the July 2012 penalty for water quality violations. This evaluation was required by a July 19, 2016 administrative order but was never produced by the company. Evaluations are necessary to better understand the successes and failures of past actions and to help guide future actions.  Ecology must make sure its role as regulator is not undermined by the company ignoring its authority with no consequences.

The table below provides a quick reference of the numerous current procedural and water quality NPDES permit violations at the Buckhorn Mine, as well as corresponding corrective actions that OHA recommends Ecology consider. Click here to download a PDF version.

NPDES Violations

OHA Requests Actions from Ecology

Over the past few years, OHA sent numerous memos to the Department of Ecology (Ecology), outlining a multitude of pressing issues regarding the Buckhorn Mine, and made recommendations to address them as the mine approaches closure. Below are some of the issues that OHA has raised:

Communication about Violations: Each month, Crown/Kinross Discharge Monitoring Reports contain numerous violations. OHA has recommended that Ecology inform the mining company each month that the violation(s) can be subject to significant penalties, and that the agency order corrective action. The Administrative Order (AO) that Ecology issued in July puts Kinross on notice and requires specific action (see “Administrative Order,” page…). Ecology should continue to administer its regulatory responsibility to ensure that the Crown/Kinross follows through on its commitments to contain mine contaminants.

Stormwater monitoring: The mine attributes contaminant exceedences in part to contaminated stormwater; however, Ecology does not require monitoring or reporting of stormwater quality if it is captured and treated. Without adequate stormwater monitoring and transparent reporting of the results, understanding the fate and transport of contaminants and developing an effective remediation plan will be very difficult. This issue applies to previous stormwater monitoring locations that were reported, and to stormwater collected in new construction fill trenches and from development rock liners. Because the capture zone has never functioned properly and data continue to show contaminants outside of the capture zone, hydrologic control of mine contaminants from stormwater and elsewhere cannot be guaranteed. The mining company and its consultants have not been able to stop the spread of mine contaminants, and increased data collection and transparency is needed. Ecology should require stormwater monitoring and reporting, regardless of whether stormwater is ultimately sent to the treatment facility. 

Understanding Contaminant Sources and Pathways: Unless the contaminant sources and pathways are understood, developing an effective remediation plan to bring the mine into compliance will be impossible. There are too few monitoring locations to adequately identify contaminant pathways. Water levels are monitored monthly in piezometers and could easily be converted to also monitor basic field parameters such as pH and specific conductance.  This additional information would provide a good indication of groundwater quality. OHA recommends that Ecology require certain piezometers to be sampled for field water quality parameters. Additional monitoring wells should be established and additional dewatering wells should be installed in known faults to intercept mine contaminants that are currently escaping capture.

Inadequate Adaptive Management Plan: Ecology rejected the Adaptive Management Plan (AMP) Kinross submitted two years ago because it did not address the water quality issues that emerged during the previous years of mining. The mine continues to report “no action is required” for mine contaminants escaping capture and entering the groundwater system, based on Crown/Kinross’s interpretation of poorly worded thresholds and action levels in the outdated AMP for Water Quality. Contaminants are clearly escaping capture and improved actions are needed. The NPDES permit provision requiring an updated AMP should be immediately enforced.  The mine should evaluate the extent of the contaminant plume emanating from the mine and develop a plan to establish a working capture zone. The AO requires additional AMP language to evaluate whether water contaminated by the mine is contained inside the capture zone. While this is an improvement, it does not supersede the requirement to revise the entire AMP.

As described above, critical water quality issues persist at the Buckhorn Mine, and there are actions that both the company as well as Ecology should take to move toward reducing contamination of surface and ground water in the area of the mine.