In the latest in a string of troubles for Wildcat Mining Corp., the Environmental Protection Agency last week filed a lawsuit against the company, alleging it has violated the Clean Water Act for almost a decade by dumping fill material into a waterway and building a wastewater pond in a wetland.
The EPA filed the complaint Aug. 8 in U.S. District Court against the mining operator and its Florida-based parent company Varca Ventures for discharging “dredged or fill material” into Little Deadwood Gulch, a low-flow tributary of the La Plata River, and building a wastewater pond in a wetland along the La Plata River that date back to 2008. The EPA is seeking an injunction and civil penalties, according to the complaint.
According to court documents, Wildcat dumped “dirt, spoil, rock and sand,” among other material that are defined as pollutants in the Clean Water Act, a 1972 federal law intended to ensure the health of the nation’s waters.
“Unless enjoined, (Wildcat is) likely to continue to discharge dredge or fill material ... in waters of the United States at the site in violation of CWA,” the complaint says.
U.S. Department of Justice spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle responded by email that the EPA decided to file suit this month because Wildcat had failed to meet the terms of a previously issued compliance order.
“We had finished investigating the violations, negotiating a restoration/mitigation plan, and drafting a proposed consent decree to resolve the violations by that time,” he wrote.
Hornbuckle said Wildcat and the EPA agreed that Wildcat must pay a $50,000 civil penalty, clean up Little Deadwood Gulch and the surrounding mess along La Plata River and abide by an injunction to no longer violate the Clean Water Act.
That agreement is open for public comment as of Tuesday, and comment will extend for 30 days. Then, invested agencies will take comments into consideration and decide whether to ask a federal judge to approve the settlement.
If motioned as an order of the court, the case will be resolved.
“As long as Wildcat/Varca pay the civil penalty and comply with the restoration/mitigation plan, they can go forward with their mining activities from EPA’s perspective, though subject to regulation by DRMS (Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety) and other state entities,” Hornbuckle wrote.
“Our concern was with unpermitted discharges of dredged or fill material into waters of the United States (Little Deadwood Gulch and wetlands adjacent to the La Plata River) and with violation of an EPA compliance order to the companies.”
Since 2008, the Wildcat has run afoul with state regulators in its attempt to mine gold, silver and other materials at the Mayday-Idaho mining complex in La Plata Canyon.
In January, Colorado’s Mined Land Reclamation Board granted Wildcat its “last chance” to end its outstanding list of violations despite three requests since 2010 from mining division staff to revoke the company’s permit.
Most recently, the board in June again extended that deadline to Oct. 15 to allow Wildcat additional time to obtain a permit from the EPA to install a culvert at the mining site, about 16 miles northwest of Durango.
Wildcat president George Robinson said Wednesday the company has completed all state-required actions except improvements to the gulch and ponds, which it cannot begin until the consent decree is approved by the courts.
“We’re ready to do it, but we can’t until we get a green light,” Robinson said. “Everything, from the standpoint of the state and county, is on track. It’s just held up from the EPA’s consent decree.”
Robinson, who took over as president in 2013, said the damage to the waterway, which mainly occurred in 2008, covers less than a half-acre of land, and would take about five days of work to complete.
“It just takes so long to get things resolved even though the writing on the wall is: It’s good to go,” he said.
Todd Hartman, spokesman for the mining division, could not confirm late Wednesday whether Wildcat has completed all remedial actions aside from the gulch and ponds.
He did, however, write in an email Tuesday that the violation of EPA’s rules does not affect Wildcat’s state permitting process. He said the company has a number of remedial actions required – stabilizing a mine portal, conducting water sampling, reclaiming a gulch, to name a few – before mining can begin.
“In order to do the required reclamation, the operator needs EPA to approve a reclamation plan due to a prior EPA enforcement action over water quality,” Hartman wrote. “While that is a pre-condition to compliance with the DRMS order, it is a separate enforcement action with which DRMS is not involved.”
Last May, Wildcat’s Robinson estimated mining would begin at the long inactive mining complex as early as October. That start date was pushed to spring 2017 after the state’s enforcement action. Robinson said Wednesday a spring opening is still viable.