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EPA alleges violation at Questa mine

December 24, 2016

TAOS — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has accused Chevron Corp. of violating the federal Clean Water Act by continuing to send contaminated water from a mine site to tailings ponds west of Questa that leak into the groundwater.

The EPA sent Chevron an order last month to explain what steps were being taken to halt the unauthorized waste stream, which flows through a nine-mile-long tailings pipeline the company was supposed to stop using by Oct. 1.

The EPA order gave the firm a Dec. 2 deadline to respond but did not include any fines.

Under a discharge permit that went into effect July 1, Chevron agreed to stop sending contaminated water to the tailings ponds. Environmental regulators have been concerned that water in the ponds has been seeping into Red River or nearby groundwater.

While the mine was still operational, Chevron said between 600,000 and 3.16 million gallons of water were leaking from the tailings facility each day. To correct the problem, the company agreed to build a new water treatment plant at the mine site, where it would treat mine drainage water, and then discharge the treated water into Red River.

However, Chevron said this fall it would not finish the new facility by the deadline. Tommy Lyles, a spokesman for Chevron, told The Taos News that the treatment plant had taken longer than expected to complete, but it was expected to be online before the end of the year.

But in an email this week, Lyles said gusting winds damaged the project last month. The work was immediately stopped, he said.

“The result of this incident, and subsequent shut down of the temporary water treatment plant, has forced the restarting of the tailings pipeline and conveyance of water to the tailings ponds,” Lyles wrote.

Lyles said the company does not know how long it will continue to use the tailings pipeline and tailings facility.

A version of this story first appeared in The Taos News, a sister paper of The Santa Fe New Mexican.