Agencies: Grand jury missed facts on mine water |

Agencies: Grand jury missed facts on mine water

Dave Brooksher
Staff Writer

More than a week after the release of a grand jury report alleging that multiple state and county agencies have failed in their responsibilities to monitor the environmental impact of mine water in Nevada County, most of those state agencies have called that report's validity into question.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife is still working on its official response. But every other agency named in the report has stated that the grand jury seemed to be unaware of much of the work that has been done on this issue.

The State Department of Toxic Substance Control and the State Water Resources Control Board's Regional Water Control Board have both stated that the grand jury's report failed to include key facts pertaining to the historical mining operations named.

"Significant work has been done at the Lava Cap, Empire and North Star mine sites that was not included in the Nevada County grand jury's report," said Stewart Black, deputy director of the Brownfields and Environmental Restoration Program for the DTSC.

"We look forward to working with Nevada County to share updated information on this work," Black added. "We also will continue to confer and coordinate with the affected local, state and federal agencies."

Tamma Adamek, a spokeswoman for the DTSC, said she was not aware of any attempts by the grand jury to speak with the agency.

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"I think they only talked to the city and the county," Adamek said. "Therefore, they're missing a huge chunk of information."

In an earlier interview, Adamek joked that it was as if the grand jury had failed to read any document dated after 1997.

The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board is not named in the grand jury's report, but they are the responsible subsidiary of the State Water Resources Control Board — which the grand jury called out for failing to meet its obligations.

"As far as I know, they didn't talk to or contact anybody," said Andrew Altevogt, assistant executive officer of the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board. "For one thing, we have a lot of the water quality data that was being talked about in the report,"

The grand jury report chides several agencies for failing to collect data about contaminant levels in surface and ground water, but Altevogt says some of that data already exists and could have been shared with the grand jury.

"We disagree with some of their conclusions," Altevogt added.

Locally, the grand jury report names the Planning Department and the Department of Environmental Health. Both of those departments fall under the Nevada County Community Development Agency.

"I am very troubled by what are purported to be facts in the report which lead to some erroneous conclusions," said Steve DeCamp, director of the CDA.

"The primary concern of the grand jury and the county is the issues regarding the Banner Lava Cap mine," DeCamp said. "The fact that it's a superfund site is a glaring hole in that report."

The United States Environmental Protection Agency assumed all responsibility for that cleanup, DeCamp said. The county keeps in contact with the federal agency to make sure that progress is being made, but it is merely an interested observer with no active role in the process.

The Community Development Agency is required by the courts to respond to the conclusions and recommendations in the grand jury's report, and that response is due by Sept. 20. DeCamp said he hopes to release that information sooner than required.

"We really don't want the citizens of this county thinking that the county has been remiss in dealing with hazardous conditions," he said.

When contacted about some of the alleged omissions, Nevada County grand jury foreman Keith Overbey responded, "State law prohibits myself or any member of the grand jury from commenting on any discussion or deliberation by grand jurors during an inquiry. The report and the facts therein stand as published."

Overbey added, "The Nevada County grand jury has no authority to investigate or inquire into the activities of state and federal agencies and, as such, we have no authority to request responses from those agencies."

In response to the report, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control generated a list of cleanup actions and background information for each mining site that appear to have been ignored in the grand jury's facts and findings.

Lava Cap Mine

The grand jury noted that a cyanide plant had been activated in 1940, and that a log dam had been constructed to hold the tailings by 1941. In 1979 that dam partially collapsed, releasing 80,000 cubic yards of mine waste downstream toward Lost Lake — which had been constructed in 1943 specifically to contain mine runoff from the site.

A cleanup and abatement order was issued by the State Water Resource Control Board, but the grand jury found no facts indicating that it had been effectively enforced.

The remaining part of the dam collapsed on New Year's Day in 1997, releasing 10,000 cubic yards of tailings into Little Clipper Creek, Clipper Creek, Lost Lake and nearby wetlands. After that, the grand jury says a series of bureaucratic steps ensued — but an effective cleanup effort did not.

As of 2013, nearby drainages still contained elevated levels of arsenic in drinking water wells — and the contractor hired to remove mine tailings after the 1979 dam failure did not complete the job, according to the grand jury report.

Tamma Adamek said that fails to capture the full picture.

The State Department of Toxic Substance Control says the EPA conducted a time-critical removal of arsenic tailings after the 1997 failure, followed by a second removal action in 2003 and 2004. In 2006 and 2007, EPA built a security fence around the site and introduced several structures to help remediate the problem.

The EPA also relocated two nearby households, installed water filtration units for three homes with contaminated water wells, and built a new pipeline to supply others with safe water from the Nevada Irrigation District.

Both the grand jury and the State Department of Toxic Substance Control report that little or no communication took place between the two organizations during the preparation of the grand jury's report.

North Star Mine

The Drew Tunnel is a component of the North Star Mine that contains discharge from both the North Star and Empire mines. Under storm conditions, the grand jury stated, the Drew Tunnel discharges 400,000 gallons of contaminated mine water into the city of Grass Valley's wastewater treatment plant.

That mine water contains iron, manganese, copper, lead, zinc and mercury — but the wastewater treatment plant is not designed to process those chemicals.

Grass Valley sued the mine's owners, Newmont Mining, in 2004. The settlement terms included a requirement that Newmont build its own wastewater treatment plant facility to deal with contamination from North Star and the Drew Tunnel by 2013, and so far that hasn't happened.

The grand jury is urging the city to take legal action, forcing Newmont to comply with that settlement. But Tim Kiser, Grass Valley's director of public works, has said that Newmont is in compliance.

The settlement included provisions allowing for deadline extensions, Kiser said.

The grand jury indicated that the city and the county' Environmental Health department have both failed to test water quality downstream from the wastewater treatment plant ­— but the State Water Resources Control Board's Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control board has said they have that data available, and would have provided it to the grand jury on request.

Empire Mine

The Magenta Drain is a component of the Empire Mine, and it runs through Grass Valley's Memorial Park. A security fence has been built to keep park visitors from exposure to the Magenta Drain's contents, but the grand jury has recommended that the city immediately take steps to divert the contents of the drain from "open ditches which endanger the public."

The State Department of Toxic Substance Control has responded, saying that mine water in the Magenta Drain is treated at a dedicated wastewater treatment plant above the park.

"Data indicate that the plant is functioning as designed in treating the mine waters, and that the resulting effluent meets applicable water quality objectives," a spokesperson said in a written statement.

The existence of that wastewater treatment plant is not reflected in the grand jury report's list of facts.

To contact Staff Writer Dave Brooksher, email or call 530-477-4230.

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