By Tim Gardner
An announcement is expected soon about whether five mining facilities in Avery and Mitchell Counties will be reissued wastewater discharge permits by the State of North Carolina.
Sibelco has four facilities vying for permit renewal. One is in the Kalmia Community on the far Southern end of Avery County called Sibelco’s Schoolhouse Facility, located on Harris Mining Company Road. Mitchell County has the other three Sibelco facilities: the Crystal Facility on Crystal Drive in Spruce Pine and the Red Hill Facility, near Bakersville and its Quartz Facility on South Highway 226 in Spruce Pine.
The Quartz Corporation wants permit renewals for a pair of its facilities, both of which are also located in Mitchell County – one (Feldspar) on Altapass Highway and the other (K-T Feldspar) on South Highway 226 Bypass.
All those facilities discharge treated industrial ore mining wastewater to the North Toe River in the French Broad River basin, a practice that has been going on for years. The acid is used in the treatment of wastewater effluent, and discharges must meet a water quality standard of pH level between 6-10. An alarm sounds when the level drops below 6, indicating an unsafe level of acidity.
There seems to be a high volume of interest about the permit renewals by residents and other businesses of both counties as well as employees of the Sibelco and Quartz facilities, companies who do business with both and regional environmentalists.
Approximately one hundred concerned citizens, elected officials and representatives from the local mining industry and the Division of Water Resources filled the Mitchell County Senior Center May 2nd, for a public hearing about those draft wastewater permits. More than a dozen people provided public comments in the three-minute time period allocated. Officials from the Division of Water Resources listened and took notes of those comments, which are being taken into consideration as the state government agency determines whether to issue the permit renewals.
The primary importance of the permits being granted is that the communities in Avery and Mitchell counties rely on the North Toe River for recreation including fishing and swimming; for the local tourism economy; and the health of the ecosystem, home to trout fish as well as the federally protected Appalachian elktoe mussel.
The Federal Clean Water Act of 1972 requires any facilities discharging wastewater into a body of water, such as a stream or river, to obtain a state permit and first treat the effluent to meet standards for certain substances.
The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality Division of Water Resources is the authority that will approve or reject issuing the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System wastewater permits for Sibelco and Quartz Corporation. NPDES wastewater permits can be issued for a maximum of five years.
Sarah Young of the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (NCDENR) offered the following statement about the continuing process for the discharge permits to be renewed or denied: “We are still working through comments received from the public hearing and comment period (about the permits). During this time we are also working with the Division of Energy, Mineral and Land Resources to address the combined impacts to the river from the wastewater and stormwater activities.”
Young added that NCDENR has 90 days from the time of the Public Hearing (May 2, 2019) to review information from public comments and the hearing and to issue a hearing officer’s report to the director (water resources), along with any recommended revisions to the permits. If the division (water resources) chooses to re-notice the permits, there will be another 30 day comment period. After that comment period ends, there is a minimum of 15 days before any permits can be issued.
That means that the permits have to be denied, approved or approved with any changes by the end of August with the permits actually being issued around mid-September at the earliest if they are approved with or without revisions.
The Sibelco Crystal Facility was originally permitted in 1995 and the Sibelco Red Hill Facility was originally permitted in 1997. Original permits for the other facilities date back to the late ’70s and early ’80s.
According to media reports, most of these facilities have violated water quality regulations over the years. The Quartz Corporation has several with its most recent in 2018. That came as a result of a hydrofluoric acid leak from its Altapass facility, which happened at Riverside Park in Spruce Pine, causing a discharge to exceed water quality standards and a fish kill. According to NCDENR, approximately 328,000 gallons leaked then and approximately another 25,000 gallons leaked in 2017.
The Department of Environmental Quality Division of Water Resources reportedly issued a notice of violation as well as a hefty $14,122.97 fine for the 2018 leak.
The Division of Water Resources first opened the latest draft permits for the Avery and Mitchell facilities for public review and comments last October and extended the public comment period through February of this year and then again through May 3rd, which its officials believed provided the public ample time to give their opinions about them.
In responding to that draft permits, the Southern Environmental Law Center, along with the French Broad RiverKeeper, its host organization MountainTrue, and Defenders of Wildlife, requested the public hearing, which the division of Water Resources granted.
The SELC called for the draft permits to “be withdrawn, substantially revised, and reissued for public comment,” indicating they are using decades-old standard and technology for the permitting process, which is not going far enough to protect water quality in the North Toe River.
Amelia Burnette, a senior attorney with the SELC, said in addition to excessive turbidity, the mines have discharged an excess of acids, fluoride, and chloride, which does not list a limit in the permits.
She added that the SELC is calling for various changes to the wastewater discharge permits. including:
*Total suspended solids and fluoride numeric limits must be tightened through a proper application of technology-based and water quality-based limits
*Sibelco’s Red Hill and Crystal facilities report discharging chloride at 10-to-25 times the water quality standard, and the permits provide no limit. Numeric limits must be added, particularly because Sibelco indicates compliance with pH standards may require additional use of chemicals.
*Limits must protect narrative standards for recreation, aquatic life and aesthetic uses of the river.
*The processing facilities’ handling of wastewater treatment sludge must comply with permit terms and state law.
*Division of Water Resources must consider impacts to endangered Appalachian elktoe.