Conservationists are accusing state environmental regulators of rolling back water quality standards at a Nevada mine to benefit the world’s largest gold mining company.
The Great Basin Mine Watch filed suit in state court in Carson City this week seeking to void the revised water quality permit the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection issued to Newmont Mining Corp.’s Gold Quarry mine in northeast Nevada.
“NDEP is not fulfilling its duty to ensure that the permitted discharge will not violate downstream water quality,” the nonprofit watchdog group said in the filing.
State officials said Friday that the new permit that relaxes standards for water temperature and salt content merely corrects technical and legal errors made in the original permit the state issued the mine in 1994 under the Clean Water Act.
Newmont officials said they are confident the state court will uphold the permit regulating water pumped from a 955-foot-deep open pit mine into the Humboldt River through Maggie Creek near the town of Carlin.
They accuse the environmental group of trying to drive all mining companies out of Nevada, which is the third largest producer of gold in the world behind South Africa and Australia.
“The appeal is not really aimed at protecting the environment,” said Mary Korpi, director of external affairs for Newmont in Nevada.
The mine watch accuses the Environmental Protection Division of violating the Clean Water Act.
“They have made it a whole lot easier for Newmont to comply,” said Tom Myers, executive director of the mine watch.
Nicole Rinke, a lawyer for the Western Mining Action Project who filed the appeal for the group, said “NDEP hasn’t really been pushing them hard enough to do things right so we are trying to give them an extra nudge.”
“We don’t want to shut down mining, but there is a right way to do it and a company like Newmont should be doing it the right way,” Rinke said.
“They have cooling towers in place that already have the capacity to cool the entire discharge to the level we are asking,” she said.
The State Environmental Commission refused most of the group’s appeal in June, although it did grant its request to return to the previous allowable level for cadmium rather than more than doubling the limit.
NDEP Deputy Administrator Jolaine Johnson rejected the charge that the state is easing the regulations to benefit Newmont.
“There were other sound legal reasons that we adjusted the water quality standards in that permit that were demonstrated and upheld by the state commission,” she said.
Myers said Newmont is raising the temperature of the Humboldt River by discharging geothermally warmed water. He said the previous water temperature limit in the creek was 25 degrees Celsius and should be raised no higher than 28 degrees Celsius, not the 34 degrees the new permit allows.
“It is bad for the stream,” he said.
In general, the group accuses the state of “backsliding” — a relaxation of previously established standards for water discharges, which they say is prohibited under the Clean Water Act.
“The act is pretty clear,” Rinke said. “There’s a provision that says you can’t go backward even if it was a legal or technical mistake.
“The reason is the goal of the Clean Water Act is not only to maintain clean waters but restore and maintain. The idea is that once a permittee is able to achieve a certain standards they should be held to that standard,” she said.
Paul Pettit, Newmont’s manager of environmental compliance and hydrology, said state agencies have discretion to correct errors.
“Anti-backsliding laws do not apply in this case,” he said.
Bill Frey, the deputy state attorney general representing the state agency, said the mine watch is trying to argue that “if you make a mistake, you can never correct it.
He said state officials have been unable to determine how or why the original standards were set. He said the permit was the first of its kind issued in Nevada for a mine of Gold Quarry’s size.
“Since then we have issued many and we have learned better how to do this,” he said.
Newmont is headquartered in Denver and has mines in the United States, Peru, Australia and Indonesia. It employs 13,000 people worldwide.