More precious than gold?

  Updated May 14, 2008

In the ’80s, activist David Kliegman was worried about logging companies over-cutting the forests on Buckhorn Mountain, the high point of the picturesque Okanogan Highlands in north-central Washington state. Then he learned that a mining company just might “take the mountain right out from under the trees.”

That was back in 1990, when Battle Mountain Gold Company proposed a large-scale, open-pit mine at the summit of Buckhorn, using cyanide leaching to process the gold. According to the grassroots group Okanogan Highlands Alliance, which Kliegman helped found, the proposed mine “would have blasted the top off Buckhorn Mountain, dug 450 feet into the aquifer that feeds five creeks and dumped tailings obliterating a creek for a pickup load of gold.” At today’s prices (about $900 an ounce), that pickup load is worth nearly $1 billion.

Now, after 18 years, three different mining companies, two dozen lawsuits, and scores of permits and appeals, an out-of-court settlement has finally been reached. Ontario-based Crown Resources/Kinross can complete its mine – but it will be much smaller than the yawning pit that enviros originally feared.

The Okanogan Highlands Alliance and its allies, which include the Center for Environmental Law & Policy, the Washington Environmental Council and the Colville Indian Alliance, would have preferred no mine at all. But “we thought it would go through no matter what,” says Kliegman. The settlement, which mitigates damage to water and soil in the area, “gave us more than we would have gotten by winning in court.”

The April 17 agreement mandates third-party testing of soil and water; maintaining natural water levels for headwater creeks on Buckhorn Mountain; and post-mining replacement of irrigation water. Crown Resources/Kinross has agreed to create a perpetual conservation easement open for public recreation after the mine closes in seven to10 years. About 100 people are working to construct the mine, and some 170 will be hired to run it, with an annual payroll of up to $12 million.

Almost 90 percent of the facility has already been built. The Okanogan Highlands Alliance appealed when the state granted water permits in 2007, but Crown pressed forward with construction, confident of eventual success. A lawsuit led by the Alliance in 2000 defeated the open-pit proposal, however, and the mine’s new footprint will be much smaller. When it’s completed later this year, three shafts will bore into the mountain, surrounded by settling ponds and other buildings.

The major downside for the local community may be the truck traffic that will be generated. Crown/Kinross intends to transport up to 1500 tons of ore daily to Echo Bay, 50 miles away, for processing –some 50 roundtrips per day. Rural Okanogan County has a population of less than 40,000, says Kliegman, but “it’s an issue for people who live along the travel corridor.”

The long battle over the mine has divided the small community, with environmentalists and the Colville Tribal Council on one side, and business-boosters and would-be mine workers on the other. “I’m hoping that now we can move forward with less polarity in the community,” says Kliegman. “It’s viewed as a win-win situation by just about everybody.” That includes the mining company, says Lauren Roberts, vice president of Crown Resources Corporation: “As the hearing date approached, both parties were looking for a better way, and I think we’ve come to a fruitful conclusion.”

The author is is the Online Editor for High Country News.