WA lawsuit accuses gold mining company of dragging its feet on cleanup

A federal judge allows suit to proceed, as the state says run-off from the mine is seeping into Okanogan water sources.

A man uses some machinery on a hilltop

Adamera employee Ethan Heinen operates a drill that collects core samples from the earth. (John Stang for Crosscut)

The state of Washington recently received a green light to continue with a federal lawsuit against the owners of the now-closed Buckhorn Mountain gold mine in north-central Washington. The suit charges the company with  dragging its feet since 2015 in complying with state and federal water pollution laws.

In June, U.S, District Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson ruled against Republic-based Crown Resources and its Denver-based parent company, Kinross Gold USA, in their attempt to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the Washington State Attorney General’s Office. Essentially, the judge decided that the state has the power to enforce the mine’s federal Clean Water Act permit and a related state water quality permit.

“It is a resounding validation of our lawsuit,” said Assistant Attorney General Bill Sherman.

The state filed the lawsuit in May 2020 in U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Washington, following an April filing of a similar lawsuit by the advocacy organization Okanogan Highlands Alliance, which made the same charges.

The lawsuits charged that Crown Resources and Kinross Gold did not comply with the federal Clean Water Act and the Washington Water Pollution Control Act, as required by its state’s pollution discharge permit, from 2014 to the present.

Excessive pollutants leached into the area around the Buckhorn Mine in Okanogan County, according to the lawsuit. Crown Resources’ gold extraction mill is near Republic in neighboring Ferry County.

If the pollution continues at its present levels, fish will die because polluted water from the mine seeps into neighboring creeks and streams that flow into the Kettle River running across northern Ferry County, according to the Attorney General’s Office.

Buckhorn Mountain is in the northeast corner of Okanogan County, about three miles south of Canada. It’s a mountain and ravine area with a history of gold mining stretching back 125 years. In 1992, Crown Resources proposed digging a mine on Buckhorn Mountain, which soon led to the creation of the Okanogan Highlands Alliance. The group was concerned about the ecological effects of substances leaching from the mine into the ground and then into the nearby creeks.

“They’ve had ample opportunity to clean up their mess,” said Sarah Kliegman, co-executive director of the Okanogan Highlands Alliance, in a 2020 interview.

In an email statement provided by Gina Myers, director of Crown Resources’  Republic operation, said the company has tackled several environmental fixes at Buckhorn Mountain since 2014. Those measures have included collecting underground water and sending it through an advanced reverse osmosis water treatment plant on the site. Crown also said it has an extensive network of monitoring wells around the area.

In its written statement, Crown said it wants to reach a “mutually acceptable” agreement with the state.

In the statement Myers provided, the company said: “Crown maintains that the current discharge permit is unreasonable, based on flawed assumptions and did not properly consider the natural background levels nor previously-permitted mine activities. Simply put, the water that is discharged from the [reverse osmosis treatment at] the Buckhorn Mine is at or better than drinking water standards.”

If the state wins the lawsuit, the maximum penalty is $54,800 per violation per day for up to five years — which could potentially reach a lot more than $100 million. Assistant Attorney General Bill Sherman said there are almost 2,500 individual potential violations. According to the state’s lawsuit, the daily reporting and violations have accumulated since March 5, 2015.

Since 2014, Crown Resources and Kinross have been before the state Water Pollution Board, Ferry County Superior Court and the state Appeals Court to challenge the state permit’s legal limits concerning substances escaping the mine’s capture zone. The companies lost at each level.

“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,” Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a press release.

Kinross bought Crown Resources, including the Buckhorn project, in 1996. They mined Buckhorn Mountain from 2008 to 2017, extracting 34 tons of gold worth $1.3 billion. When Kinross and Crown Resources obtained their state water quality control permit, they became responsible for capturing and treating polluted stormwater, wastewater and groundwater from the mine’s operations. In an environmental review before the mine’s construction, the state identified those pollution hazards

A Canadian firm, Adamera, is doing in-depth prospecting northeast of Republic, but has not found gold in large enough volumes to be confirmed as cost effective to mine. In the past few months, Adamera has drilled new boreholes to collect samples northeast and east of Republic.

Under state and federal law, Crown Resources must restore the mountain and the surrounding area to the water and soil quality levels recorded in environmental impact studies conducted before mining began. The targeted substances include chloride, nitrates and nitrites, oil and grease, sulfate, total dissolved solids, total suspended solids, ammonia, arsenic, copper and iron, as well as the acidity of the water.

The primary groundwater flow from Buckhorn Mountain is to the south and southeast. That water seeps into six small creeks nearby that flow east into two larger creeks that flow into the Kettle River, which heads east along the north side of Ferry County and into the Columbia River, roughly 70 miles from Buckhorn Mountain. This is bull trout fishing country.

With a few hundred residents, the Kettle River basin is sparsely settled. To the west is Cheshaw, which has only a handful of people left from the hamlet’s heyday of 200 residents more than a century ago. Thirty miles farther west is Oroville, on the Okanogan River, with a population of roughly 1,700, the biggest town in the Buckhorn area.

Scattered around the 50-acre site and just outside of it are roughly 50 state water monitoring sites — a few on surface water and most monitoring wells 20 to 700 feet deep. In monthly reports, about 20% of those — primarily in the south and southeast — have shown pollutant limits above the state’s permitted levels.

In November 2019, one groundwater monitoring well showed chloride levels eight times the state’s limits, according to the Attorney General’s Office. 

The state’s goal is to return the Buckhord area’s groundwater and creek water to the readings gathered in the 1990s and from 2003 to 2006, as determined during environmental impact studies. The main pollutants exceeding the state’s standards are nitrates and chlorides introduced during the mining and already present sulfates and arsenic knocked loose during the gold processing. 

In 2020, Kliegman said: “It’s hard to clean up groundwater. But it’s something they are going to have to put together to get it done.”

About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government. He can be followed on Twitter: @johnstang_8