The company that runs the inactive Rock Creek gold mine near Nome has agreed to pay nearly $900,000 to federal regulators for the mine's storm-water discharge violations two summers ago.
It's the second largest-ever penalty involving storm-water violations at a construction site regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's northwest regional office, federal regulators said Tuesday.
The mine operator, Alaska Gold Corp. said Tuesday it will pay the EPA $883,628 to settle the federal Clean Water Act violations. But first, the settlement undergoes a 30-day public-comment period; a federal court in Anchorage must approve it too.
Alaska Gold previously had been warned and fined by state and federal regulators for the storm-water problems at Rock Creek: state regulators first noted violations at the mine's construction site in 2007, EPA officials said.
Rock Creek began pouring gold in October 2008 but shut down the next month, saying it was unable to meet regulators' environmental mandates, among other problems.
Alaska Gold says its storm-water problems have been resolved. Last fall, the company spent several million dollars finishing a checklist of storm-water protection upgrades, it said Tuesday. State and federal officials said they will start monitoring the runoff when spring thaw begins in Nome to ensure the work was effective.
"They've gotten the message from both EPA and (the state) that we expect better actions from them," said Chris Foley, an enforcement officer for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. The DEC fined the company $19,000 last year for not meeting all of the state's storm-water mandates, he said.
Rock Creek had not opened yet when its storm-water problems began, and muddy water wasn't the mine's only start-up problem.
After the small open-pit mine received state and federal permits to begin construction in 2006, it fended off an environmental lawsuit and it also experienced major cost overruns, mechanical problems and a bad accident. Two construction workers died at Rock Creek in 2007 when their lift basket tipped over and they fell 50 feet. The mine was fined for that too.
The violations in the EPA's settlement this week involve storm water carrying too much sediment from the mine's construction site to nearby streams, according to Eva DeMaria, an EPA enforcement officer based in Seattle.
She said Nome residents also provided photos and complaints on the pollution. The amount of sediment in the water was hundreds of times higher than state water quality standards allow, and the muddy water entered three streams between April 2007 and September 2008, she said.
EPA officials said they have no information about whether the sediment harmed aquatic life in the streams because that sort of testing had not been done. Two of the three streams affected by the discharges were salmon-bearing, they said.
Too much sediment can interfere with fish feeding and their sense of smell, plus it can smother fish eggs, said Kristin Karlson, an EPA enforcement officer.
In a press release, Alaska Gold said Tuesday it wasn't able to complete adequate storm-water protection because of severe weather and litigation-induced delays. After some Nome residents filed a suit questioning the mine's wetlands disposal permit in 2006, federal regulators temporarily withdrew the permit before reissuing it. A federal judge later tossed the lawsuit.
An attorney for the Nome residents Tuesday disputed the claim that the case had any role in delaying storm-water measures. "Even if we were successful, that wouldn't have prevented the company from putting in adequate storm-water measures," said the attorney, Brian Litmans.
This is the second-largest penalty for violation of a general construction permit in EPA's Region 10, which encompasses Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Idaho, the EPA said.
Storm-water pollution is a big problem for all sorts of construction projects, not just mines. Home builders, big-box retailers and road construction projects often get hit with federal storm-water fines, EPA officials said.
Generally, storm water from a construction site is a different sort of pollution than wastewater discharges from industrial operations, which can carry a heavier load of contaminant such as heavy metals and chemicals.
The biggest-ever storm-water fine for a construction project in EPA's Region 10 was levied against Idaho's state road department in 2006: $1.4 million, including an agreement to provide money to a nonprofit, Karlson said.
The maximum possible fine for Alaska Gold was more than $6 million -- just over 200 violations times $32,500, according to EPA officials.
Alaska Gold is a subsidiary of NovaGold Resources Inc., a Canadian company, which said last month it hopes to restart Rock Creek or sell it this year. NovaGold also is a partner in the proposed Donlin Creek gold mine, a prospective $5 billion development in Western Alaska.
Find reporter Elizabeth Bluemink online at adn.com/contact/ebluemink.