Ark. panel allows mining firm more water discharge
By: L. Lamor Williams | Arkansas Democrat-Gazette | 08/27/11 1:30 PM
A mining company on Friday won permission from state environmental regulators to continue discharging treated stormwater into Wilson Creek at current levels after abandoning a request to have the stream stripped of its drinking water designation.
As part of reclaiming its defunct 500-acre vanadium mine at 4367 Malvern Road in Hot Springs, UMETCO Minerals Corp. collects and treats stormwater in a retention pond, which in turn flows into Wilson Creek.
UMETCO asked the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission for the change because the amount of minerals it has been discharging into the stream exceeds standards. The company's permit gave it until September, 2010, to comply with old standards that it has said are impossible to meet.
The new standards of 500 milligrams per liter for total dissolved solids; 56 mg/L for chlorides; and 250 mg/L for sulfates, more closely mirror the federal Environmental Protection Agency's drinking water regulations.
Al Eckert, an attorney for the company, said to meet the previous state standard - 142 for total dissolved solids, or TDS; 15 mg/L for chlorides and 20 mg/L for sulfates - would have required UMETCO to invest in expensive treatment options, including some that would produce waste that could not be discharged.
According to the Department, the level of total dissolved solids in Wilson Creek hovers around 500 milligrams per liter.
The state Department of Environmental Quality, the commission's enforcement agency, is finalizing the terms of a consent administrative order - including a fine - for the time the company has been out of compliance with the old standards. On Friday, Teresa Marks, director for the department, said that the amount of the fine has not been determined.
While the standards have been changed, the creek will still meet the state's secondary drinking water standards, said Ryan Benefield, deputy director of the department.
The department opposed removing the designation from Wilson Creek, prompting UMETCO to withdraw that part of the request which would have raised the discharge of total dissolved solids to around 540 mg/L. Secondary drinking water sources cannot exceed 500.
"That's not a technical issue. It's more of a policy issue," Benefield said. "We thought it would be bad policy to remove the drinking water designation and we also thought that they could modify their treatment system to slightly lower their numbers to meet the drinking water designation."
UMETCO is a subsidiary of Union Carbide Corp. Its Hot Springs vanadium mine opened in 1960 and was closed in 1986. Since that time, the company claims to have spent about $40 million on reclaiming the site.
While Wilson Creek is not a drinking-water source, it feeds into Lake Catherine and eventually the Ouachita River, which are drinking-water sources for cities such as Hot Springs and Arkadelphia.
Area residents have sought to block the change fearing the deterioration of their drinking water quality. In July, a joint legislative committee on public health called on the state Environmental Quality Department to find money for a comprehensive study on Lake Catherine's water quality.
After the vote, Mary Bournival, District 4 Justice of the Peace in Garland County, said she was deeply disappointed by the commission's decision.
"The people of the county feel defeated," she said. "We were not heard."
A UMETCO spokesman was pleased with the outcome.
"Clearly, ADEQ and the commission have seen the results of our continued efforts at the Wilson Creek reclamation site," said Lucius Boudreaux.
State Sen. Mike Fletcher, who's District 27 includes Lake Catherine and Wilson Creek said when he was a boy he swam in Lake Catherine.
"I won't swim in that lake anymore," he said. "I ask you if your drinking water came from that lake, would you vote in favor of changing the standard?"
Joe Nix, a concerned resident of the area and former Ouachita Baptist University chemist who's studied the lake, told the committee that it would probably cost about $300,000 for such a study.
Marks has said the Environmental Quality Department doesn't have the financial resources or manpower to perform such a sweeping study but noted that the agency has been taking water samples.
On Friday, Nix repeated his call for the study and noted that he was sad about the pending decision the commission had to make.
"Unfortunately, I see no other option but for the commission to approve the request," he said, noting that earlier studies don't support the commission denying the request on grounds of environmental harm. "That's not easy for me to say."
Nix's comments comes on the heels of an Arkansas Department of Health study that concluded that the discharges into the creek posed little if any risk to the water quality in Lake Catherine.
The Health Department originally had concerns about the proposed standard change, but withdrew them once it became clear that the new rule would not change the amount of minerals discharged into Wilson Creek.
The Health Department study dated July 29 said "that there is currently no evidence of potential off-site human exposure to UMETCO site-related contaminants through public drinking water sources."
The study further concluded that drinking the water or getting it on one's skin "at or near the UMETCO site is not expected to harm people's health because ... levels of chlorides, sulfates, total dissolved solids, cadmium, chromium, and/or vanadium are below levels of public health concern. Also, there is no evidence of elevated cancer rates and/or cases associated with this site."
After the vote to approve the change, the commission tabled a second motion calling for a resolution stating its intent to have a comprehensive study done of the lake and its waterways.
Bournival was not impressed.
"Personally, I doubt that study will ever be done," she said.
Action on a new study was tabled to give an administrative law judge time to properly research and word such a resolution. The commissioners suggested that the resolution be sent to the governor, legislature and other environmental agencies, such as the Arkansas Game and Fish, Natural Resources and Forestry commissions, to ask them to help fund the study.
Leaders of these agencies sit on the Pollution Control and Ecology Commission.
"There are trees around the lake," Commissioner William Thompson said, jokingly aiming his comment at John Shannon, head of the Forestry Commission. "Maybe the Forestry Commission has some money."
Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, http://www.arkansasonline.com
Read more at the Washington Examiner: http://washingtonexaminer.com/news/2011/08/ark-panel-allows-mining-firm-more-water-discharge#ixzz1WLFUVDL3