By Tim Gardner
Less than a year after an area mineral processing plant illegally discharged hydrofluoric acid into the North Toe River, the facility, along with five other nearby mining facilities, are up for discharge permit renewals from the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality Division of Water Resources.
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 in Ledger May 2, for a public hearing about those draft National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System wastewater permits for the mining facilities in Avery and Mitchell counties.
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 will be considered as the state government agency determines whether to issue the permit renewals.
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 many 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.
The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality Division of Water Resources is the authority to approve or reject issuing the NPDES permits for Sibelco and Quartz Corporation. National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) wastewater permits can be issued for a maximum of five years.
The 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 Sibelco Crystal Facility was originally permitted in 1995 and the Sibelco Red Hill Facility was originally permitted in 1997. Original permits for the others date back to the late ’70s and early ’80s.
According to media reports, most of the 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.
The Department of Environmental Quality Division of Water Resources reportedly issued a notice of violation as well as a $14,122.97 fine.
Also, according to reports, John Silver, The Quartz Corporation’s environmental manager, in a letter of response, said the violation was due to “a valve not being completely closed and apparently involved a new employee” and that the company “acted quickly to mitigate any impacts and retrained all personnel on safe chemical handling.”
That same week, a Town of Spruce Pine municipal wastewater pipe broke just upstream of the park, sending 20,000 gallons of raw sewage into the North Toe River. The Toe River District Health Department then closed the river to all recreation use for a couple of days.
The DWR 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 feelings about the draft permits.
In responding to that draft, 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 DWR 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.
Hartwell Carson, the French Broad Riverkeeper based in Asheville, regularly monitors streams throughout the French Broad Watershed. He said in 2015 and 2016, knowing about the effluent coming from the mines along the North Toe River, he tested for turbidity, or the amount of cloudiness due to suspended particles in the water. In those years, Carson said, his turbidity meter reached 999 ntu, the highest it would go.
Incidentally, North Carolina’s water quality standard is 10 ntu for trout waters.
“Mining facilities on the North Toe have violated water quality standards repeatedly in recent years,” Carson declared. “While the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality considers the river impaired, the agency has proposed new permits for the next several years that would allow the pollution from the mine facilities to continue.”
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 said the SELC is calling for the following changes to the wastewater discharge permits:
*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 since 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.
*DWR must consider impacts to endangered Appalachian elktoe.
Christy Thrift, co-owner of Thrifty Adventures outdoor recreation company was another opposed reissuing the permits.
“In this day and age there is no excuse for this type of pollution, and I feel permits need to be better looked at,” Thrift said. “These issues directly affect businesses, our health and the health of the river. How can our community grow if we continue to pollute our biggest resource?”
Thrift said some of her past clients have complained about “foamy, milky white mine discharge that smells like chemicals.”
However, not all attending the hearing agreed that the pollution in question may be as problematic or even exist to a level that would make it dangerous or unhealthy.
Toe River Valley Watch co-founder and Blue Ridge Resource Conservation and Development Council Vice President Starli McDowell submitted a statement that the condition of the river and the practical operational methods of local mining companies have improved significantly from years past.
“I have built a relationship with both mining companies through local initiatives and they know that folks are watching the river very closely now and will not allow the river’s water quality to go backwards,” McDowell said. “I am submitting this so you understand what is going on in our community now and what has gone on in the past.”