Mining companies got the gold, but gave northeast Washington’s scenic Kettle River country the shaft, according to a federal lawsuit filed Thursday in Spokane by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson.
The AG’s office is suing two gold mining companies, Crown Resources and Kinross Gold, for allegedly violating the Clean Water Act by discharging illegal levels of pollutants into creeks flowing into the Kettle River in Okanogan County.
The companies are owners of the Buckhorn Mountain Mine, long opposed by environmental groups, with support for the project playing a role in the 2000 defeat of Republican U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton. The mine also served as a major employer in rural, resource-dependent Ferry and Okanogan Counties. Ferry County has a population under 8,000.
According to the attorney general’s lawsuit, the mine owners repeatedly violated the federal Clean Water Act and the Washington Water Pollution Control Act over the course of six years, with the mine releasing contaminants including arsenic, lead, ammonia and aluminum into nearby tributaries of the Kettle River.
Everyone has a duty to protect our waters, including multi-million-dollar corporations,” Ferguson said in a statement. “The mining operation knew about the potential pollution before they started construction. But when the pollution showed up and the state required them to fulfill their promise to contain it, they chose a protracted legal battle instead — and lost, repeatedly.”
The Buckhorn Mountain mine is located, just south of the Canadian border, in Okanogan County. From 2008 to 2017, the two firms extracted approximately $1.3 billion in gold from underground tunnels. A majority of these tunnels are below the water table, according to the AG’s suit. Once extraction stopped, the state alleges, release of contaminants continued.
The state alleges that owners knew of potential pollution before extraction began in 2008. The state did an environmental review that identified potential impacts to nearby waters, and noted that the mine would create a risk of “acid mine drainage.” The explosion of dynamite would release pollutants.
The Kettle River flows through mining country, but is remote and vastly scenic. It passes south into the United States from British Columbia, then meanders back into B.C., and finally joins the Columbia River in upper reaches of he 92-mile long reservoir behind Grand Coulee Dam.
Under a water quality permit required by the state, the mine’s owners were required to capture and treat water impacted by mine operations. This means wastewater, contaminated groundwater, and stormwater.
“Since 2014,” said a statement by the AG’s office, “the mine has not properly captured contaminated water, allowing contaminants to consistently escape the mine at levels well above those allowed by their water quality permit.
“For example, in Crown’s November, 2019, discharge monitoring reports, Crown reported chloride levels at a groundwater seep monitoring point that was eight times the permissible monthly average allowed in its permit. That same month saw average monthly average exceedances at other ground and surface monitoring stations for sulfate, arsenic, ammonia and nitrates.”
Crown Resources fought the permit, and lost after a years-long battle.
The Attorney General’s office wants compliance, and remediation for “years of pollution.”
It also wants money in the form of penalties. The maximum penalty under the federal Clean Water Act is $54,800 per violation, per day, for up to five years. The AG’s office says that could total millions.
The Buckhorn Mountain mine, in operation, was a popular corporate citizen in the area, and a source of some 180 jobs. It was proposed initially as an open pit cyanide leach gold mine. Sen,. Gorton sought to advance the project, located on national forest land, with a 2000 amendment to a Balkans relief bill. He was defeated by challenger Maria Cantwell. Native American groups used the mine in $300,000 worth of advertising against Gorton.
The Department of Ecology permitted the project to go ahead, nearly a decade later, requiring that Kinross spend $150,000 a year during operations, and $75,000 annually after extraction completed, on ensuring no groundwater or surface water pollution.
The conditions of the mine’s permit included conducting stream and wetland augmentation using treated water, riparian habitat enhancement, and preservation and provision of wildlife watering facilities.
Kinross is the third largest primary gold producer by reserves in North America. It has mines in Russia, Brazil and Chile. It acquired Crown Resources in 2008.
When extraction was completed in 2017, Kinross delivered a final message to people in the local area:
“Over 1.3 million gold ounces produced. Twenty-nine miles of underground mine drifting. Four hundred fifty-six men and women working a toal of 3.27 million combined manhours. At least 2,000 years of combined experience working for Kinross or its predecessors. Over $100 million paid in locl wages/benefits, and $1.6 million donated to local organizations. More than $11 million tax dollars supporting local services and infrastructure. A legacy of responsible mining.”
The attorney general’s office begs to differ.