A federal judge has ruled that Crown Resources, the owner and operator of the now-closed Buckhorn Mountain gold mine in north-central Washington, committed 3,539 environmental violations. The company is likely responsible for multi-million dollar fines, but continues to argue broader lawsuits in court.
The Washington Attorney General’s Office and Crown Resources agreed to stipulate that these violations occurred, and on October 18, Washington Eastern District Court Judge Mary Dimke signed a stipulating order. Crown Resources is currently responsible for the environmental cleanup of mines in Okanogan County.
Financial penalties will be resolved at a later date, according to a press release from the Attorney General’s Office. Lawsuits against the mine continue, with similar lawsuits being filed by the Okanogan Highlands Alliance, a coalition of local environmental activists. Both the state and the alliance said the company has been limping to comply with state and federal water pollution laws since 2015.
The maximum fine is $54,800 per day per offense for up to five years. This could be well over $100 million. Last week’s court order listed 3,539 violations. Daily reports and violations have accumulated since March 5, 2015, according to the state lawsuit.
“Buckhorn Mountain is one of our state’s pristine natural areas. These companies had a responsibility and a legal obligation to protect it. They failed that responsibility thousands of times. We will continue to work to hold them accountable,” Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a press release.
Buckhorn Mountain is about three miles south of Canada, in the northeast corner of Okanogan County. An area of mountains and valleys with a 125-year-old gold mining history. In 1992, Crown Resources proposed mining Buckhorn Mountain, which soon led to the creation of the Okanogan Highlands Alliance. The group was concerned about the ecological impact of material leaching from the mine into the ground and into nearby streams.
The Alliance lawsuit names Crown Resources and Kinross Gold USA, Crown’s parent company based in Denver. Kinross was not named in a regulatory court order between the state and Crown Resources, and the Okanogan Highlands Alliance did not participate in that agreement.
The alliance did not respond to a request for comment.
Deana Zakar, spokeswoman for Crown Resources and Kinross, said in a written statement: Crown Resources will continue to [permit being litigated] It was based on faulty assumptions and did not properly consider natural background levels. Many of the acceptance criteria are unattainable. They are below natural background levels and the water discharged from the treatment facility is above potable water standards. ”
Zakar continues: As this case progresses, we intend to vigorously defend this case and stand firm for environmental protection and effective regeneration. ”
A state and alliance lawsuit filed in 2020 accused Crown Resources and Kinross Gold of failing to comply with the federal Clean Water Act and the Washington Clean Water Act, as required by the state’s pollution discharge permit. ing.
Crown Resources’ Republic operations have addressed several environmental issues at Buckhorn Mountain since 2014. This involves collecting groundwater and sending it to the site’s advanced reverse osmosis water treatment plant.
Kinross acquired Crown Resources, which included the Buckhorn Project in 1996. They mined Buckhorn Mountain from 2008 to 2017 and he mined 34 tons of gold worth $1.3 billion. When Kinross and Crown Resources obtained state water management permits, they became responsible for the collection and treatment of contaminated stormwater, wastewater and groundwater from mining operations. In a pre-mine environmental survey, the state identified potential pollution hazards.
Under state and federal law, Crown Resources must restore mountains and surrounding areas to water and soil quality levels recorded in pre-construction reviews. Substances covered include chlorides, nitrates and nitrites, oils and greases, sulfates, total dissolved solids, total suspended solids, ammonia, arsenic, copper and iron, and water acidity .
The main groundwater flows from Buckhorn Mountain are south and southeast. Its waters near He seep into six small streams, and flow eastward into He into two large streams and into the Kettle River. The Kettle River heads east along the north side of Ferry County and flows into the Columbia River about 70 miles (70 miles) from Buckhorn Mountain. This is trout fishing country.
Scattered around the 50-acre site, just outside are approximately 50 state water monitoring sites. Most of the monitoring wells are 20 to 700 feet underground, although there are some in surface waters. Monthly reports indicate that approximately 20% of these (mainly in the South and Southeast) have contaminant limits that exceed acceptable levels for the state. In November 2019, one groundwater monitoring well showed chloride levels eight times the state limit.
Crown also has an extensive network of monitoring wells in the area.
According to a 2021 crosscut interview with the Attorney General’s Office, if contamination continues at current levels, fish will die as contaminated water from the mine seeps into nearby creeks and streams that flow into the Kettle River. .
The Kettle River Basin, with several hundred inhabitants, is sparsely settled. To the west is the unincorporated Chesaw community, with a tiny population (down from 200 during the height of the gold rush more than a century ago). Oroville, 30 miles further west, on the Okanogan River, has a population of about 1,700 and is the largest town in the Buckhorn area.
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