Nearly 100 attend mine permit renewal hearing
LEDGER – Approximately 100 concerned citizens and elected officials packed the Mitchell County Senior Center Thursday, May 2, for a public hearing about the renewal of six draft National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, or NPDES, wastewater permits for mining facilities in Mitchell and Avery counties. The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality Division of Water Resources renews the NPDES permits for Sibelco and Quartz Corp., as they are facilities that discharge treated industrial ore mining process wastewater at their facilities connected to the North Toe River and the French Broad River Basin.
Sibelco has four facilities vying for permit renewal – its Quartz Facility on South Highway 226 in Spruce Pine, its Schoolhouse Facility on Harris Mining Company Road, the Crystal Facility on Crystal Drive and the Red Hill Facility
Quartz Corp. hopes for permit renewals for a pair of its facilities – one on Altapass Highway and the other on South Highway 226 Bypass.
The DWR began accepting initial public comments on the permits this past October and extended that comment period through February. The DWR then moved to extend the comment period through Friday, May 3, which gave the public plenty of time to express their thoughts at the public hearing on the draft permits the night before the newly extended comment period was slated to close.
Concerned citizens, along with representatives from the local mining industry, packed the conference room at the Senior Center, many eager to share their thoughts. More than a dozen people provided public comment.
Each speaker was limited to three minutes. The comments will be considered as the DWR works toward a final decision on the permit renewals.
French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson, who is a member of the environmental protection group MountainTrue, attended the meeting with members of his team and was the first to make public comment.
Carson and staff from the Southern Environmental Law Center participated in a strategy session days before the meeting to unify their message and prepare for the hearing. Carson, the SELC, MountainTrue and environmental group Defenders of Wildlife called for the public hearing in Mitchell County after viewing the draft permits when they were released for public review.
“Mining facilities on the North Toe have violated water quality standards repeatedly in recent years,” Carson said. “While the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality considers the river impaired, the agency has proposed new permits for the next several years that would allow the pollution from the mine facilities to continue.”
Christy Thrift, co-owner of Thrifty Adventures outdoor recreation company, was one of the many public commenters to share thoughts on the permits.
“The Toe River is an asset to not only the community but to tourism,” Thrift said. “The river not only provides recreation for people, but it is also a source of job growth and increased revenue for Mitchell County.”
Thrift said some past clients have complained about “foamy, milky white mine discharge that smells like chemicals.”
Thrift added the discharge changes the color of the water and leaves a slimy residue on the rocks of the riverbank.
This past summer, the North Toe River was subject to a hydrofluoric acid spill Thrift estimates cost her about $800 of business over two days.
“In this day and age there is no excuse for this type of pollution, and I feel permits need to be better looked at,” she said. “I think the public deserves to know what comes out of those pipes. What are we swimming in?
“These issues directly affect businesses, our health and the health of the river. How can our community grow if we continue to pollute our biggest resource?”
Bakersville resident and Toe River Valley Watch board member Dan Barron spoke at the meeting and encouraged everyone involved to look at the situation with an “us” rather than an “us vs. them” attitude.
“When I was a kid, we actually could walk across portions of the Toe and not get our ankles wet,” Barron said. “We have come a long way, but we still have a lot of things to do if we want to continue to not just maintain, but to continue to improve the condition of the river and its watershed.”
Toe River Valley Watch co-founder and Blue Ridge Resource Conservation and Development Council Vice President Starli McDowell submitted a statement at the hearing and also provided a copy to the News-Journal. McDowell said in her statement the condition of the river and the practices of local mining companies have improved significantly from years past.
“I have built a relationship with both mining companies through local projects and initiatives and they know that folks are watching the river very closely now and will not allow the river’s water quality to go backwards,” McDowell said. “I am submitting this so you understand what is going on in our community now and what has gone on in the past.”