Atlanta Gold mining co. still violating Clean Water Act at Boise River site, judge rules

A view out from the 900 adit, a 1917 tunnel that has bled arsenic pollution into Montezuma Creek in Atlanta east of Boise since miners abandoned the mine decades ago. Atlanta Gold installed a bulkhead and filters to treat the polluted water.
A view out from the 900 adit, a 1917 tunnel that has bled arsenic pollution into Montezuma Creek in Atlanta east of Boise since miners abandoned the mine decades ago. Atlanta Gold installed a bulkhead and filters to treat the polluted water. Photo courtesy Atlanta Gold

A Boise federal judge has ruled that an Idaho mining company is still violating clean water rules and not fully complying with prior court orders.

In an order issued Thursday, U.S. Chief Magistrate Judge Ronald E. Bush found that Atlanta Gold “has not achieved substantial compliance” with the Clean Water Act at its Montezuma Creek site above Atlanta in Elmore County.

Montezuma Creek is a tributary of the Middle Fork of the Boise River, which joins with other headwaters above Lucky Peak Dam to become the Boise River, a source of drinking, irrigation and recreational water for Boise and other Treasure Valley communities.

Atlanta Gold’s “treatment system remains incapable of treating the higher volumes of water associated with annual snow melt or other high-water events, such as heavy rains,” Bush wrote. “Progress has been made in reducing the number of violations of the permit requirements and reducing the severity of the violations, but an improvement upon an abysmal record of non-compliance does not equal substantial compliance” with federal rules.

The judge also called out Atlanta Gold for failing to follow through on improvements it said it would make to ensure compliance and protect the watershed.

“(S)ome of the improvements Atlanta Gold discussed in the filings and testimony leading to this decision are the same improvements Atlanta Gold has discussed, but has never implemented, dating back at least seven years,” Bush wrote.

However, the judge did find that Atlanta Gold “has succeeded in reducing the frequency and magnitude of permit exceedances, and although those improvements do not rise to the level of substantial compliance they do justify a reduction in the amount of the civil contempt penalty.”

Bush reduced that penalty, imposed in 2017, from $251,000 to $125,500.

He declared the case closed, “but the court will retain jurisdiction to ensure compliance with its orders.”

Atlanta Gold’s attorney, Michelle Points, told the Statesman on Friday that the company has no comment on the judge’s ruling.

Repeated violations, problems, penalties

Thursday’s ruling is the latest in a series of suits and actions stemming from a lawsuit filed in 2011 against Atlanta Gold by two environmental organizations, Idaho Conservation League and Northwest Environmental Defense Center, accusing the company of violating clean water laws and failing to reduce the levels of pollutants flowing into Montezuma Creek.

U.S. District Judge Mikel Williams found the mining company at fault in 2012. He ordered Atlanta Gold to pay $2 million for repeated violations of the Clean Water Act and to fix the problems or face additional financial penalties.

Since then, Atlanta Gold has repeatedly landed back in court for additional violations and for failing to comply with court orders.

High spring runoff in 2014 sent uncontrolled releases of arsenic-laced water flowing out of an old mine tunnel into Montezuma Creek.

In 2016, the court reopened the case because Atlanta Gold was not complying with its orders. Judge Bush found Atlanta Gold guilty of violating the Clean Water Act and held the mining company in contempt of court for allowing arsenic to flow into Montezuma Creek. He ordered the company to pay $502,000 in fines and penalties.

In September 2017, Bush fined Atlanta Gold an additional $251,000 for more violations. Atlanta Gold failed to meet the deadline to pay that fine. In September 2018, the company asked the judge whether it could use cryptocurrency to pay the fine. The judge said no. This is the fine the judge reduced to $125,500 on Thursday. “This amount is due and payable immediately,” Bush wrote.

“This latest decision comes after almost a decade of court rulings ordering Atlanta Gold to comply with its legal duties and clean up its mining pollution, which the company continues to violate. It is time for Atlanta Gold to end this long history of unlawful conduct,” said Laird Lucas, executive director of Boise-based law firm Advocates for the West, which represents Idaho Conservation League.

Atlanta Gold has not fully made things right for the Boise River and Idahoans, Idaho Conservation League Executive Director Justin Hayes said.

“The river is a major source of drinking water and recreation for southern Idaho, and it’s way past time for Atlanta Gold to step up and take responsibility,” he said.

Hayes added, “The government needs to get more involved to regulate and properly enforce its laws regarding mines in Idaho.”

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Idaho Statesman investigative reporter Cynthia Sewell was named Idaho Press Club reporter of the year in 2017 and 2008. A University of Oregon graduate, she joined the Statesman in 2005. Her family has lived in Idaho since the mid-1800s.