A Sonoma County mining company faces a $4.5 million fine for allegedly allowing over 10 million gallons of tainted water to flow into a creek, damaging the habitat of endangered salmon.
In a September press release, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board announced that, at a Dec. 2 meeting, the agency’s board would consider approving a $4.5 million fine against the BoDean Company, Inc. for numerous alleged violations of the Clean Water Act at the company’s Mark West Quarry several years ago. The North Coast water board is one of nine similar boards around the state charged with enforcing a variety of environmental laws.
Water Board staff first identified the problem in December 2018, when they noticed “sediment-laden stormwater” in Porter Creek downstream from the 120-acre quarry, which is used for hard-rock mining and materials processing. Over the next five months, Water Board officials visited the quarry 15 times total, documenting numerous similar incidents. All told, Water Board prosecutors estimate that 10.5 million gallons of tainted water flowed from the mountainside quarry into Porter Creek, which feeds into the Russian River.
Water Board photographs show that the investigators repeatedly discovered cloudy waters, known as “turbid” in Water Board lingo, emanating from the BoDean quarry. The creek serves as habitat for endangered California steelhead trout and Coho salmon, and the sediments flowing from the quarry could put those creatures at risk.
“Abnormally high levels of sediment in surface waters can smother aquatic animals and habitats; alter or obstruct flows, resulting in flooding; and reduce water clarity, which makes it difficult for organisms to breathe, find food and refuge, and reproduce,” the Water Board’s September press release states.
In September, Water Board staff planned to send the $4.5 million fine for a vote at a Dec. 2 board meeting. However, in an interview, Claudia E. Villacorta, the assistant executive officer of the regional Water Board, said that BoDean has since agreed to enter negotiations with water officials.
Villacorta says that during the negotiation process, BoDean will have a chance to present evidence that may reduce the amount of the fine, as well as negotiate a payment plan. The company may also propose completing what is known as a “supplemental environmental project.” In that case, the company would partner with a nonprofit or government agency to build a project to environmentally benefit the watershed instead of paying a fine.
The Water Board expects to release an announcement about the results of the negotiations within the next month or two, according to Villacorta.
In addition to paying the fine, BoDean is expected to bring the quarry into compliance with Water Board regulations moving forward. According to the Water Board, the millions of gallons of runoff would have been avoidable if BoDean had followed the requirements of their permit. Instead, the Water Board says that the company did not comply with the permit’s requirements, resulting in the excessive runoff and, in turn, the hefty fine.
“Had the quarry operator complied with the storm water permit, impacts to water quality could have been avoided. The proposed fine reflects the extent of those impacts and the operator’s failure to implement minimum practices established in the permit,” Villacorta said in the Water Board’s September statement.
Dean Soiland, an owner of BoDean Co., and Sean Hungerford, an attorney representing the company, did not respond to requests for comment. However, at an August Water Board meeting, Hungerford said that BoDean is working on the problem.
At the same meeting, two Water Board members expressed frustration about the BoDean company’s track record at the quarry.
“I think you would do your client a great service to remind them of the seriousness of the vote that we just took … there’s a history of notice of violations, there’s a history of being slow to react. This board does not take [it] lightly if its authority is ignored, and our track record shows that, so this is kind of the last straw, and we hope that your client takes this action seriously and does the right thing for his sake and for the sake of the public,” Board Chair Gregory Giusti told Hungerford.
“I do just want to assure this board that my client does take this matter seriously and has already set several wheels in motion to make sure that we don’t have a meeting like this again,” Hungerford responded. “I think by this time next year everyone involved will have a different sense about the site and where we stand with respect to compliance.”
The $4.5 million fine under consideration by the Water Board is larger than most, but not the largest. Last December, the regional board approved a $6.4 million fine against Sonoma Luxury Resort LLC, a company constructing the ritzy Montage Healdsburg hotel, for allegedly failing to prevent 9.4 million gallons of sediment-laden water from flowing into creeks, which feed into the Russian River.
Water board inspectors visited the Mark West Quarry on Oct. 25, just after a major rainstorm drenched the North Bay. According to a report from the visit, BoDean has made infrastructure improvements to the quarry but will remain on a watch list until runoff from the facility tests clean in four consecutive major storms.
Will Carruthers is a news reporter for the Pacific Sun and North Bay Bohemian. Email tips to [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @Carruthers_W.