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The Northwest office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is proposing to deny Hecla Mining Company's request for a variance, or relief, from water quality standards for lead, cadmium, and zinc at the company’s Lucky Friday Mine near Mullan, Idaho. Wastewater from the mine is discharged to the upper South Fork Coeur d'Alene River.
One basis for Hecla's variance request was that cost of installing treatment in order for their discharge to meet the water quality standards would result in substantial and widespread economic and social impacts. EPA conducted a thorough and careful review of all information and determined that installation of the necessary wastewater treatment upgrades will not cause substantial economic impacts to the company.
Installation of the necessary wastewater treatment at the Lucky Friday mine will reduce the levels of metals entering the South Fork Coeur d’Alene River. These further reductions of metals into the upper South Fork will benefit the water quality conditions and improve the ecological conditions for the existing aquatic life in the river, including a native population of westslope cutthroat trout.
Last August the EPA issued a revised National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit to Hecla for the Lucky Friday mine. The permit limits for cadmium, lead and zinc in the revised permit are based on Idaho's site-specific water quality criteria specifically for the South Fork Coeur d'Alene River. Hecla appealed this permit and therefore portions of the permit, including the metals limits, are "stayed," meaning that they are not in effect, pending the outcome of the appeal.
While Hecla projects that expenditures to meet the water quality standards would be approximately $5.5 million, the EPA believes that the costs will not present an economic hardship to the company. The company reports a strong financial position and positive forecasts. In a recent news release Hecla reported cash flow from operations was the highest in 10 years. Hecla President and Chief Executive Officer Phillips S. Baker, Jr., said, "We have very low costs of production in both silver and gold, and plan to keep using our cash flow to fund the expanded exploration program and look for potential acquisitions...We are in the best position ever for long-term growth."
Hecla made two additional claims in its variance request. One claim is that human caused pollution is so severe that the river can not recover sufficiently to support aquatic life. Its second claim is that channelization of the river resulting from surrounding urbanization has prevented attainment of a healthy aquatic ecosystem in the South Fork. EPA determined that Hecla did not adequately support either claim, and that there exists much information showing that upstream of the Lucky Friday mine, a viable cold water fishery is in place and that stricter discharge limits at the mine–in addition to on-going clean-up work at contaminated sites–can further enhance a healthy cold-water aquatic life community.
In June, EPA approved a variance requested by three municipal wastewater treatment plants for Page, Mullan and Smelterville which also discharge to the South Fork Coeur d'Alene River. Unlike Hecla, those facilities qualified for a variance for economic reasons.
The EPA will be accepting comments on the proposed denial of Hecla's variance request from September 1 to 30.