Tuesday, July 23, 2002

Idaho

Mine owner digs in against EPA
Bunker Hill boss rejects cleanup bills, claims EPA is roadblock to prosperity
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Karen Dorn Steele
Staff writer

photo
Christopher Anderson - The Spokesman-Review
Bob Hopper is the owner of New Bunker Hill Mine in Kellogg and a vocal critic of the EPA's Superfund cleanup.

Bob Hopper's animosity toward the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is hard to miss.

Signs proclaiming "Just Say No to EPA" and "Notice, No EPA Officials Allowed" plaster his vehicles, fences and the New Bunker Hill Mine office above Kellogg.

For a decade, the lifelong miner has dug, stockpiled and sold ore from some of the Bunker Hill's 150 miles of underground workings next to one of the nation's largest Superfund sites.

Where EPA sees mining pollution, Hopper sees profit potential. It's an uneasy standoff.

The EPA says Hopper is responsible for pollution caused by toxic water draining from his mine.

In 1997, EPA sent him his first bill: $1.9 million toward the $253 million Superfund cleanup. Hopper's tab has grown to between $14 million and $15 million.

The reason: EPA has been treating the mine's highly acidic discharge and studying how to handle it for decades to come. It's the largest single source of mine pollution in t
he Coeur d'Alene River Basin.

On average, 1,500 gallons per minute of contaminated water gushes out of Hopper's mine -- nearly 2.2 million gallons a day containing 3,100 pounds of zinc.

The acidity is from water running through sulfur-rich rock. It must be treated with lime in an EPA-run plant to remove zinc, lead and other heavy metals before it's released to the South Fork of the Coeur d'Alene River.

Hopper hasn't paid EPA a dime.

"They can say anything they want to say. I'm not paying," he said, snapping off the filter on his cigarette before lighting up.

Instead, he's suing. In a January 2001 lawsuit, Hooper accuses EPA of unlawfully "taking" part of his property without compensation by blocking access to an ore body he says is worth $250 million.

In an earlier letter to Hopper's lawyer, the EPA said Hopper is unlikely to be paid for any "takings" because of his overdue bill from the government.

"At best, EPA would reduce the amount of your client's past due bills by the value, if any, of the incursions," EPA assistant regional counsel Jennifer Byrne said in the letter.

Hopper has enlisted Idaho politicians in his battle.

He's also active in the Shoshone Natural Resources Coalition, a group fighting EPA's proposed expanded cleanup in the Coeur d'Alene Basin.

At last fall's Northwest Mining Association conference in Spokane, Hopper said the EPA's Superfund mandates -- called unilateral administrative orders -- are abusive and unconstitutional.

He accused EPA of having a plan to seize his mine when he wouldn't comply with its orders.

EPA developed a contingency plan to treat the contaminated water in case Hopper closed up the mine and walked away, Byrne said.

"EPA has no intention of taking his mine," she said. "But we want to assure he has adequate resources to continue to operate it."

The EPA has been issuing cleanup orders to Hopper since 1994, agency documents show.

EPA ordered him to obtain a federal discharge permit for his mine drainage. He said it's unnecessary because his mine doesn't discharge into the river.

"It discharges into an EPA

created reservoir within the Superfund site," Hopper said.

EPA also ordered him to keep water levels in the 6,000-foot deep mine pumped 300 feet below the level of the South Fork of the Coeur d'Alene River so the acidic water won't seep into the river. He's done that, says Cami Grandinetti, the EPA's Superfund project manager. Hopper said he was doing it before the EPA order.

Hopper is angriest about a sequence of EPA work orders along Milo Creek above his mine. He says the work has hindered his ability to return the mine to full production.

Milo Creek drains a 4-squaremile area from the top of Kellogg and Wardner peaks through the Silver Mountain Ski Resort and down a steep canyon through Wardner and Kellogg to the South Fork.

At Wardner, the creek is routed underground through culverts and pipes to the Valley floor.

In 1995, EPA ordered him to dig out sandy mining leftovers, called jig tailings, from the creek bed. He complied, but says the excavation caused more water to infiltrate his mine, generating more acid water.

"I bitched and yelled. It was one of the dumbest things I could have pictured anyone doing. They don't agree -- they think they are smart," Hopper said.

Evidence that Hopper's mine has been harmed by water inflow has never been shared with EPA, Grandinetti says.

Hopper says his worst problems came after floods hit the Silver Valley in 1997.

"We got a flood underground in

the mine for the first time in recorded history," he said.

Emergency crews had to replace the old piping system above Wardner after it blew out, flooding parts of Wardner and Kellogg and carrying more lead sediments into town.

Hopper says state contractors botched the initial job on the upper slopes. EPA has now installed a large concrete overflow channel on Hopper's property that he calls "the luge." "They built it without an easement and with no right of way granted," he said.

EPA went to federal court in 1999 to get permission to access Hopper's property on Reed Landing, a flat shelf of land above Kellogg.

"Under Superfund, we can get a court order authorizing us to gain access," Grandinetti said. "We worked with him to shove the channel to the west to get it to the side of his property. We fixed the problem permanently."

The chute was built to separate floodwaters from Milo Creek's old mine tailings. The overflow project cost $4.6 million, EPA records show.

Last year, the EPA released a plan to deal with the water from Hopper's mine. It calls for a treatment plant upgrade that would treat the mine water "in perpetuity."

Hopper is unhappy that groundwater monitoring may keep EPA around for years -- with him on the hook for payments.

"They are declaring the site clean, but they really aren't going away. They are going to spend tens

of millions of dollars just monitoring water," he said.

"We can't ignore it," Grandinetti said. "Either the EPA or the state or the mining owner must address it."

Hopper won't disclose the identity of his financial backers in Placer Mining Corp., doing business as the New Bunker Hill Mine since 1991.

In his lawsuit against EPA, Hopper says he bought the mine "with the investment backed expectation of restoring the mine to full production" and has put more than $5 million into it.

But he's refused to show the EPA his books. EPA lawyers went to federal court in Boise in 1998 to force disclosure. The effort ended in a settlement, with Hopper paying a $20,000 fine for nondisclosure under Superfund. EPA recently sent him another request for the information.

"We still don't know whether he has the ability to pay," Grandinetti said.

Placer Mine Corp. was registered in Nevada in 1983. Hopper is president; William Pangburn of Renton, Wash., is secretary, and Cynthia Edin of Redmond is treasurer, corporate registration documents filed in Nevada say.

Hopper's more eager to talk about his other mining dream.

With a group of partners, including Idaho state Sen. Kathy Sims and mine expert Fred Brackebusch, Hopper is exploring plans for a new zinc plant. The partners are eyeing a site near the former Bunker Hill complex.

If the zinc plant is built, Hopper's mine would supply the ore.

Meanwhile, Hopper has earned some income through the sale of pyromorphite crystals, large and exotic formations that grow underground in pockets of galena ore. Some of his largest specimens are listed on a mining Web site at $50,000 each.

He's also stockpiling lead, silver and zinc ore from the mine's upper workings, waiting for prices to rise.

Over its history, the Bunker Hill mine has produced 40 million tons of ore, including 1.3 million tons of zinc, 3.2 million tons of lead and more than 5,000 tons of silver. At today's prices, that adds up to $3 billion in revenue.

The mine could make another $3 billion if returned to full production, Hopper says.

"There would be huge benefits," he said. "A lot of people in the Silver Valley want this."


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