For 15 years, Roger Jackson has raised hay and grain, sheep and goats on his spread in northeastern Washington's Okanogan County. Then last June, Jackson learned that Battle Mountain Gold Co. planned to operate an open-pit gold mine six miles from his farm, on Buckhorn Mountain in Okanogan National Forest.
Worse, Jackson learned that the company
wanted to run its mine 24 hours a day, seven days a week, during
the eight-year life of the gold mine.
decided to act. He and fellow farmer Jim Newton placed an ad in the
local newspaper and got 45 other rural farmers to sign it.
"Except for the occasional rancher haying, we
almost always hang up our hats after dark around here," said the
folksy-sounding ad. Then the farmers called on Battle Mountain Gold
to operate the mine only 12 hours a day.
company continues to maintain that operating fewer than 24 hours a
day is economically unfeasible. If Battle Mountain won't alter its
plans, the farmers will try to push through a zoning ordinance - a
long shot given the anti-regulatory bent of people in this
"There's no reason we should
have our lives disrupted like this," Jackson says. He's sure his
goats would get jumpy from day and night blasting because he's seen
them flatten themselves against fences when low-flying Stealth
bombers maneuver overhead.
The Forest Service
admits that noise from operations represents the "greatest
short-term potential disturbance to wildlife from the proposed
project," but its draft environmental impact statement does not
address the mine's effect on farm animals.
conservative Okanogan County, home to a vocal anti-regulation,
pro-development movement, the farmers' outspoken opposition
represents a new setback for Battle Mountain Gold's Crown Jewel
Mine. But the project, which would blast away part of Buckhorn
Mountain inside the Okanogan National Forest to extract low-grade
ore, has drawn a heap of opposition from other groups as
Experts hired by two environmental groups
in the county have ripped the Forest Service for failing to
adequately address the proposed mine's effect on traffic, air
quality and the hydrology of Buckhorn Mountain. In August, the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency found the Forest Service
environmental analysis deficient, saying it would not issue the
required permits to fill wetlands based on the information it
provided. And the Colville Indian Tribe has demanded more time to
study the mine's potential impact on land it still considers part
of the Colville Reservation.
Although the U.S.
government unilaterally changed the reservation boundaries to
exclude Buckhorn Mountain in the late 19th century after gold was
discovered there, the tribe "has never given up on our ancestral
hunting and fishing rights or our water rights' in the area, says
tribal historian Barbara Aripa. In October, the tribe's business
council passed a resolution prohibiting precious metals mining on
The long-running debate over the
Crown Jewel Mine raises a basic question: Is forested, 5,602-foot
Buckhorn Mountain even a suitable site for an open-pit mine that
uses cyanide and other toxic chemicals to extract particles of gold
from low-grade ore?
Most such mines have been
developed in desert regions like Nevada's Elko County, where
streams are scarce and groundwater is far below the
But five streams originate high on
Buckhorn Mountain, and Battle Mountain Gold proposes to blast 450
feet into the aquifer that feeds them in order to create a 138-acre
Marias Creek, which has populations of
rainbow and brook trout, would become the repository for toxic
tailings. The mountain also contains 30 springs and 18 seeps,
including a frog pond that would be buried under millions of tons
Over the life of the mine, 150 workers
would process 13,000 tons of ore and dump 34,000 tons of waste
rock, known as overburden, every day. Gold would be extracted at an
indoor facility by percolating a cyanide solution through the rock;
the leftover solution would be deposited at tailings ponds.
In all, the mine, its ore-processing mill, the
waste rock disposal areas, tailings ponds, new power lines, water
pipelines and a reservoir would disturb 766 acres on the mountain,
almost all of it on public land.
The mountain has
already been scarred by Battle Mountain's prospecting. Rough roads
slice its east-facing slopes, which are pocked with drill holes and
plastic pipes. The mountain also bears evidence of played-out
hard-rock mines. Acid mine drainage still pours out of old portals,
staining the rock walls gold and black.
near Buckhorn Mountain's four-and-a-half-mile summit ridge, the
surrounding country still feels wild and primitive. Beyond, in
Canada, are the distant mountains of the Granbee Wilderness
In its draft environmental impact
statement, which drew 7,000 comments, the Forest Service proposes
some modifications to Battle Mountain's plan. Under the agency's
preferred alternative the company would have to partially backfill
the pit with processed ore as it mines, leaving a smaller area
permanently disturbed after the mine is played
A nearby Okanogan County environmental
group, the Okanogan Highlands Alliance, in Tonasket, says the
Forest Service review fails to adequately consider such critical
issues as the permanent de-watering of the mountain, the effects of
constant blasting and wind-blown dust on air quality, increased
sedimentation of streams, destruction of important wildlife
corridors, and the safety hazards posed by a steady stream of
trucks to and from the mine site on narrow mountain roads.
Under the mining company's proposal, the road
between Oroville and Chesaw would see an increase of 274 vehicles a
day, adding to the risk of accidents and chemical
"The project is flawed in both scope and
design," the alliance says. "The ecological consequences could be
harmful for generations."
Geraldine Payton, a
resident of the tiny hamlet of Chesaw, near Buckhorn Mountain,
agrees. Payton is a member of the Columbine River Bioregional
Education Project, which hired a geologist to do an independent
review of the draft EIS. "In virtually all issue areas, the (draft
EIS) masks the real effects," Payton says.
alliance also contends Battle Mountain Gold is cutting costs on the
project to produce healthy dividends for stockholders. Karl Ellers,
the company's chief executive officer, predicted in a speech last
year that the cost of developing and operating the Crown Jewel
Project would be roughly $200 per ounce below the current market
value of gold, and more than twice the average profit margin for
mines of this type.
"There are low-grade ore
bodies like this all through the area between here and Molson,"
Payton says. "I don't want to see the Okanogan Highlands turned
into a pockmarked national sacrifice zone." So far, 18 other mining
companies are prospecting in the area.
Kathie Durbin is an
environmental reporter in Portland, Oregon. A version of her
article appeared in Cascadia Times.
information, contact: Woody Rehanek of Okanogan Highlands Alliance,
509/486-1003; Phil Christy, NEPA coordinator for the Tonasket
Ranger District, Okanogan National Forest, 509/486-5137; or Brant
Hinze, local project manager for Battle Mountain Gold Co.,
Oroville, Wash., 509/476-3144.