The U.S. Supreme Court refused Monday to let the Environmental Protection Agency issue a permit to a mining company to put more chemicals into an already polluted Arizona stream.
Without comment, the justices refused to disturb a ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that said a waterway being polluted does not mean a new company can come in and add its own wastes. The judges blocked the EPA from issuing the legally required permits for the company to discharge runoff into streams even if it finds ways to "offset" its pollution by cutting an identical amount of waste from another source upstream.
Instead, the court ruled, a permit can be issued only if the company agrees to bring the stream's water quality into compliance with federal standards, even if much of the problem is unrelated to the new mine.
Monday's ruling is a defeat for Canadian-based Quadra Mining Ltd.
Its subsidiary, Carlota Copper Co., wants to construct and operate a 3,000-acre open-pit mine near Globe and Miami, about 60 miles east of Phoenix.
Sophie Taylor, a spokeswoman for Quadra, would not comment on the ruling. She said it is not yet clear whether the decision means her company has to start over again with its application for the discharge permit or whether it can simply make a few changes.
According to the company's Web site, it hopes to eventually extract 77 million pounds of pure copper a year, obtained from 9 million tons of ore, over the mine's planned 11-year life.
Carlota wants to divert Pinto Creek around the mine. But the EPA said there will be situations where stormwater runoff finds its way into the stream, bringing with it additional dissolved copper.
The EPA issued the necessary permit in 2000 on the condition that Carlota clean up a portion of the now-defunct Gibson Copper Mine. According to the agency, that action would offset any new pollution from Carlota's site, meaning Pinto Creek, which already has more copper than legally allowed, would get no worse.
The Sierra Club, the Maricopa Audubon Society and other groups then sued.
In the 2007 appellate court ruling, Judge Proctor Hug Jr. questioned whether there really would be an offset. But he said even if there is, it is still illegal for the EPA to let Carlota add any more copper to the already polluted stream.
"No permit may be issued to a new discharger if the discharge will contribute to the violation of water-quality standards," the judge wrote.
He said that is in line with the objectives of the federal Clean Water Act "to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation's waters." And that, he said, makes it "the national policy that the discharge of toxic pollutants in toxic amounts be prohibited."
Hug said the only way for the EPA to issue Carlota the necessary permit is for the company to have a plan and schedule to reduce the stream's existing pollutants to below federal standards and then not to allow the new discharges to put the stream above legal limits again.
In a prepared statement, Don Steuter, conservation chair for the Arizona chapter of the Sierra Club, hailed the ruling.
"This project's discharges of toxic metal would have further polluted Pinto Creek, which has been listed as one of nation's most endangered rivers due to the threat posed by the Carlota Project," he said.