AG declares major win against Buckhorn mine owners in Clean Water Act Case

Buckhorn mine produced $1.3 billion in gold, fines could be in the millions

Gary DeVon/staff photo
Groundwater and snowmelt in settling pond where water was collected prior to treatment at the Buckhorn Mine near Chesaw. Photo taken during a tour of the mine before it was closed and went into the reclamation phase.
Gary DeVon/staff photos
Groundwater and snowmelt in settling pond where water was collected prior to treatment at the Buckhorn Mine near Chesaw. Photo taken during a tour of the mine before it was closed and went into the reclamation phase.

Gary DeVon/staff photo Groundwater and snowmelt in settling pond where water was collected prior to treatment at the Buckhorn Mine near Chesaw. Photo taken during a tour of the mine before it was closed and went into the reclamation phase. Gary DeVon/staff photos Groundwater and snowmelt in settling pond where water was collected prior to treatment at the Buckhorn Mine near Chesaw. Photo taken during a tour of the mine before it was closed and went into the reclamation phase.

OLYMPIA — U.S. District Court Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson issued a summary judgment in Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s federal lawsuit against two gold mining companies over years of water pollution stemming from the Buckhorn Mountain gold mine.

Judge Peterson dismissed the companies’ main defenses, writing in the ruling that there is “no support” for their claims that the Attorney General’s Office cannot enforce all of the mine’s Clean Water Act permit.

Ferguson’s lawsuit asserts the companies, Crown Resources and Kinross Gold, violated the Clean Water Act by discharging illegal levels of pollutants into creeks in Okanogan County flowing into the Kettle River. Now that the companies’ main arguments have been dismissed the case will focus on how much they owe for their Clean Water Act violations. The companies could face millions of dollars in penalties for their pollution. The judge will determine exactly how much they owe in future rulings.

“Crown and Kinross knew even before the mine’s construction that it could release significant contamination, including arsenic and chloride, into surrounding waters, yet plowed ahead anyway,” Ferguson said. “Today’s ruling should be a wake-up call to these companies; Washington takes our water quality seriously, and we will fight unlawful water pollution every step of the way.”

Crown Resources, one of the two companies sited by the attorney general, disagrees with the court’s ruling, insisting they followed environmental protections outlined in their permits.

“Crown Resources is disappointed by today’s ruling of the U.S. District Court. Crown has adhered to the highest environmental standards during operation and closure of the Buckhorn Mine, which has resulted in discharge water at or below drinking water standards. This is due to its advanced reverse osmosis water treatment plant at site. As it has always done, Crown will continue its activities in an environmentally responsible manner, including undertaking reclamation activities at the now-closed Buckhorn Mine,” said Deana Zakar, speaking on behalf of the company.

The lawsuit was filed with consultation from the state Department of Ecology. Okanogan Highlands Alliance, a citizen group that has long monitored water quality issues at the Buckhorn mine, filed a similar lawsuit in April 2020.

Crown Resources and its parent company, Kinross Gold, own Buckhorn Mountain gold mine, a 50-acre underground mine in Okanogan County located approximately 31 miles east of Oroville, Washington and about four miles from the Canadian border. From 2008 to 2017, the companies extracted approximately $1.3 billion in gold from the mine’s miles of underground tunnels. A majority of these tunnels lie below the water table. Ore extraction stopped in 2017, but contaminants continue to be released from the mine, according to the state.

“Since the mine’s construction, it has released pollutants to waters in and around the mine — including both groundwater and nearby streams, which flow into the Kettle River. These pollutants include aluminum, ammonia, arsenic, lead and nitrates. These contaminants are harmful to people, water ecosystems and fish species like trout,” argued the state,” adding, prior to the mine’s construction, these streams were largely untouched and showed little evidence of contamination from human activity.”

In taking the case to federal court, the state claims Crown and Kinross knew the potential for pollution before the mine was constructed. A state did an environmental review of the mine proposal before construction. The review identified potential impacts to nearby waters, noting the mine would create the risk of “acid mine drainage” — highly acidic liquid, often containing toxic metals, that drains off a mine’s newly excavated rock and ore. The review also noted that the use of explosives, like dynamite, at the mine could release pollutants into nearby waters.

Entities that release pollutants into Washington waterways are required by law to obtain a water quality permit from the state. The water quality permit for the Buckhorn mine requires Crown to capture and treat water impacted by the mine’s operations, including stormwater, wastewater and contaminated groundwater.

Ferguson’s lawsuit asserts the companies repeatedly violated the Clean Water Act and the Washington Water Pollution Control Act, doing little to comply with its water quality permit and contain the pollution from the mine. The lawsuit also asserts that since 2014 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.

Ferguson’s lawsuit asks the court to require Crown to meet the terms of their permit, remediating damage from years of pollution. The lawsuit asks the court to award monetary penalties and attorney’s fees. The maximum penalty under the Clean Water Act is $54,800 per violation, per day, for up to five years. The Attorney General’s Office estimates the potential Clean Water Act penalty could be in the millions of dollars.

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