Note from the Fluoride Action Network:
See a list of the many mines in Spruce Spring, North Carolina

SPRUCE PINE – Not quite a year after a mineral processing plant illegally discharged hundreds of gallons of hydrofluoric acid into the North Toe River causing a fish kill, the facility, with five other facilities on the river, are up for discharge permit renewals from the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality.

The DEQ’s Division of Water Resources will host a public hearing to gather comments on these six draft wastewater discharge permits for mines in Avery and Mitchell counties at 6 p.m. May 2 in Bakersville. The public comment period ends May 3.

The facilities — Sibelco NA Quartz, Sibelco NA Schoolhouse, Sibelco NA Crystal, Sibelco NA Red Hill, The Quartz Corp K-T Feldspar Corp., and The Quartz Corp and The Feldspar Corp. — discharge treated industrial ore mining wastewater to the North Toe River in the French Broad River basin, a practice that has been going on for decades.

The importance of these permits goes back to the heart of the communities that rely on the North Toe River for recreation such as paddling, fishing and swimming; for the local tourism economy; and the health of the ecosystem, home to trout as well as the federally protected Appalachian elktoe mussel.

The federal Clean Water Act of 1972, requires any facilities discharging wastewater into a body of water, such as a stream or river, must get a state permit and first treat the effluent to meet standards for certain substances, said Amelia Burnette, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center based in Asheville.

Sarah Perkins with the N.C. DEQ said that National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) wastewater permits can be issued for a maximum of five years.

The Sibelco NA Crystal Facility was originally permitted in June 1995 and the Sibelco NA Red Hill Facility was originally permitted in 1997. The others date back to the late ’70s and early ’80s.

DEQ permit process started in the fall

The DEQ first opened the draft permits for public review last fall but without a public hearing. In responding to that draft, the SELC, along with the French Broad RiverKeeper, its host organization MountainTrue, and Defenders of Wildlife, called for a public hearing, which was granted.

SELC also called for the draft permits to “be withdrawn, substantially revised, and reissued for public comment,” saying they are using decades-old standard and technology for the permitting process, which is not going far enough to protect water quality in the North Toe River.

“We said that these permits are missing an opportunity to clean up what is a longtime pollution problem in the North Toe. The fundamental purpose of the Clean Water Act is to restore and protect our rivers and streams,” Burnette said.

“One one way it does that is by further ratcheting up permits over time, based on technology. It’s supposed to getting tighter every time and limiting pollution and supposed to be making sure there aren’t water quality violations. That’s not happening.”

Most of the facilities have violated water quality rules over the years. The Quartz Corp. has had about a dozen in as many years. Most recently, the DEQ issued a notice of violation to the Quartz Corp. on July 15.

During the height of summer recreation on the North Toe, which floats slowly through Spruce Pine with a popular access point at Riverside Park, there was a hydrofluoric acid leak from the facility, causing 320,000 gallons of discharge to exceed water quality standards and causing a fish kill.

DEQ issued a notice of violation as well as a $14,122.97 fine.

John Silver, The Quartz Corp. environmental manager, in a letter of response said the violation was due to “a valve not being completely closed and apparently involved a new employee.”

He also said the company acted quickly to mitigate any impacts.

In a subsequent letter to the DEQ asking that the fine be reduced, Quartz Corp. said it had retrained all personnel on safe chemical handling. An attached training document in the letter says the two acids the company handles, hydrofluoric and sulfuric, are both “very corrosive to skin and metal.”

That same week, a city municipal wastewater pipe broke just upstream of the park, sending 20,000 gallons of raw sewage into the North Toe. The Health Department closed the river to all recreation use for a couple of days.

How should permits be changed?

Hartwell Carson, the French Broad RiverKeeper based in Asheville, regularly monitors streams throughout the French Broad Watershed.

He said in 2015 and 2016, knowing about the effluent coming from the mines along the North Toe, he tested for turbidity, or the amount of cloudiness due to suspended particles in the water. In those years, Carson said, his turbidity meter reached 999 ntu, the highest it would go.

North Carolina’s water quality standard is 10 ntu for trout waters.

Burnette said in addition to excessive turbidity, the mines have discharged an excess of acids, fluoride and chloride, which does not list a limit in the permits.

“If everybody discharged the maximum total suspended solids they could on same day – what would that look like? Over 10,000 pounds would to go into North Toe River, which is not at all protective of the river. That’s 5 tons a day, or several dump truck loads,” Burnette said.

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She said the SELC is calling for the following changes to the wastewater discharge permits:

  • Total suspended solids and flouride numeric limits must be tightened through a proper application of technology-based and water quality-based limits.
  • Sibelco’s Red Hill and Crystal facilities report discharging chloride at 10-to-25 times the water quality standard, and the permits provide no limit. Numeric limits must be added, particularly since Sibelco indicates compliance with pH standards may require additional use of chemicals.
  • Limits must protect narrative standards for recreation, aquatic life, and aesthetic uses of the river.
  • The processing facilities’ handling of wastewater treatment sludge must comply with permit terms and state law.
  • DWR must consider impacts to endangered Appalachian elktoe.

“This hearing is a chance for people who recreate or live by the river to say how they use the river, what they see on the river and how it impacts how they use the river, whether is causes them to go to other rivers, and what the river means to them,” Burnette said.

Want to comment?

The N.C. DEQ Division of Water Resources will hold a public hearing at 6 p.m. May 2 at the Mitchell Senior Center, 152 Ledger School Road in Bakersville. Speaker registration will begin at 5:30 p.m.

The documents for each facility may be found on the NC DEQ website.

The can also be reviewed at the division’s Asheville Regional Office. Make an appointment by calling 828-296-4500.

Public comments on the draft permit modifications may be also submitted by mail to: DWR Wastewater Permitting, 1617 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC 27699-1617. Comments may be submitted by email at Include “North Toe Mines” in the email’s subject line or comments may not be routed to the correct office for review.

The public comment period on the draft permits ends May 3.