Permit Needs Enforcement
Water quality at the Buckhorn Mine is regulated by the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit, under the Clean Water Act. The continuous water quality permit violations at the Buckhorn Mine started shortly after mining operations began and have increased to the present day. The Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology) has the responsibility to uphold and enforce the discharge permit. Over the past decade, OHA has regularly suggested corrective actions that would increase understanding of the contaminant flows at the mine site and lead to long-term solutions to the water quality problems.
The permit violations are numerous and are both procedural and numeric. Procedural violations have to do with the mining processes, whereas numeric violations relate to measured levels of various components in the water, such as sulfides, nitrates, etc. 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 lack the appropriate triggers, benchmarks, actions, and evaluation processes needed to ensure that water quality requirements are met. 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 almost complete. The closure plan lacks sufficient detail, leaving the regulatory agency and the public without a clear idea of what thresholds need to be reached before the water treatment system is no longer required.
In each quarter of 2018, Ecology issued Notices of Violation for water quality violations, which continue unabated. 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.