Excavating Ecotopia

  • Buckhorn Mountain in Okanogan County

    Diane Sylvain
  • FUTURE TAILINGS DUMP? The "Frog Pond" on Buckhorn Mtn.

    Will Patric photo
  • Buckhorn Mtn. is already scarred from exploration activities

    Will Patric photo

    Courtesy Okanogan Highlands Alliance
  • Spence Higby, County Commissioner


Note: two sidebar articles accompany this feature story under these headlines: "A run at sustainable development" and "Tribes strike back at mining."

OROVILLE, Wash. - The first gold in the state was discovered over that ridge," says 84-year-old Web Hallauer, pointing across shimmering Lake Osoyoos and this small lakeside town and its orchards, to the big hill of scrub brush that makes the horizon.

That 1859 strike at Shankers Ridge (named for a mining-camp epidemic of venereal disease) initiated gold fever here in rural Washington along the Canadian border. The boomtown of Okanogan City sprang up and was abandoned almost as quickly, as miners headed to richer strikes. Since the 1950s, most of the mining here has been small-scale.

Yet, Hallauer says, this is still gold country. His credentials include more than two decades in the state Legislature, a stint as director of the Washington Department of Ecology, and the founding of the Okanogan County Mining Association. He also holds, perhaps, more local mining claims than anyone else.

"You can still get a good chunk of ore out of (the Similkameen River)," says Hallauer enthusiastically. Recalling old-timers who knocked about the Okanogan hills in the 1930s looking for gold, he says: "They lived exciting lives. They had a spirit about them."

Hallauer hopes to see that spirit alive again in the hills here. This time, instead of miners lugging gold pans and boxes of dynamite, he's looking to a pair of multinational corporations that have come to the area bearing vastly different technology, in pursuit of an ore deposit the old-time miners would not have dreamed existed, let alone tried to mine.

The ore body lies a few miles east of Oroville, within Buckhorn Mountain on national forest land. There, Houston-based Battle Mountain Gold and its joint venture partner, Crown Resources, hope to recover approximately 1.5 million ounces of gold. If forged into a single ingot, that much gold would be about the size of a refrigerator - a refrigerator worth nearly half a billion dollars even at today's depressed gold prices.

The new mine, the Crown Jewel, would be developed and operated for only 10 years, but during that brief time it would turn the mountain inside out.

The lead company, Battle Mountain, wants to blast a hole 900 feet deep and 116 acres wide into the core of Buckhorn Mountain, crush the ore to a powder, and then mix it with a cyanide solution inside enormous steel vats perched on the mountainside. Ninety-seven million tons of waste rock with acid-generating potential would be piled as high above ground as the pit is deep.

While the modern technology of open-pit, cyanide-leach hardrock mining has taken over mountains in Nevada and Montana and elsewhere in the West, the Crown Jewel would be its first large-scale application in Washington state.

The technology has been around long enough to create disasters like Colorado's Summitville (HCN, 1/19/98) and Montana's Zortman-Landusky (HCN, 12/22/98), but the company here and the key state agency, the Department of Ecology, say this mine will set an example of environmental correctness for the industry.

Washington seems an ideal place for a modern, ecologically safe mine. Concern for the environment runs high, especially in the crowded urban corridor west of here, on the coastal side of the Cascade Mountain range. Many environmentalists believe that the generally progressive Pacific Northwest - Ecotopia to some - has the best chance to evolve a sustainable economy.

What's more, the companies, the state agency and the U.S. Forest Service say the mine will be a marvel of engineering and safety, and that it will merge well with Washington's vision of itself as environmentally advanced. Nevertheless, an effective grassroots environmental group has sprung up here to oppose it, and a coalition of local and statewide conservation groups and Indian tribes is appealing just about everything that can be appealed and waging four lawsuits against the mine - any one of which could kill it.

Technofixing environmental problems

Still, the mine's opponents may not have a legal prayer. The company and the Forest Service have spent six years and $80 million in pursuit of plans, permits and political clout. If time and money count for anything, the Crown Jewel should be bullet-proof.

But in fact the mine is no more a sure thing today than it was in 1992, when the original plan was submitted to the Forest Service and the companies expected to start construction in 1993. Today, the mine is still at least a year away from construction.

Money and time have been spent on everything from exploration and planning to water rights, environmental review and a donation to the local school district. The review process, led by the Forest Service and the Department of Ecology, "has gone beyond thorough," according to former project manager Brant Hinze, who was recently transferred to the company's Bolivian gold mine. "It has gone to the extreme," he says.

The company has had to apply for some 45 permits and approvals from local, state and federal agencies. The environmental impact statement took nearly five years and ran more than 600 pages, partly because of the technical issues raised by opponents and the Department of Ecology.

The review and regulations aim to protect a very modest mountain. Buckhorn tops out at 5,602 feet and it doesn't sit on the doorstep of some famous ecological treasure, like Yellowstone National Park, whose protection would interest editorial writers at The New York Times. The Columbia River does lie downstream, but a long way down, through Nicholson Creek and the Kettle River.

Nor is Buckhorn Mountain a playground for urbanites. It's a six-hour drive to metro Seattle and nearly that long to the state's easternmost metro area, Spokane. Okanogan County is Washington's largest county and one of its most remote, with only 35,000 people and no town larger than 4,300. The land and climate, like much of eastern Washington, are dry and severe.

Yet Buckhorn Mountain is also special. It's one of the high points of the Okanogan Highlands, a wide strip of country between the Okanogan and Columbia rivers, stretching into Canada. While the low-lying Okanogan River valley is all bunchgrass, dry hills and granite ridges, the Highlands erupt into verdant life. Grass fields turn greener the higher you go. Forests of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir draped in lichens and mosses hug the highest land. The mountains draw storm clouds, watering themselves and the valley.

Five streams have their headwaters on Buckhorn Mountain. The lush grasses and sparse forests on the mountain are a corridor for deer and other wildlife traveling between roadless areas. The name itself, Buckhorn, refers to the bountiful hunting grounds.

The Highlands have a "different feeling than any of the other places I've been," says Woody Rehanek, who came here while drifting around the West and wound up sticking for 26 years.

The mine would transform the mountain and maybe the surrounding country as well. Even with all the review and regulations, it would destroy 1.4 miles of stream headwaters and 3.5 acres of wetlands, as well as degrade 56 local seeps and springs. Over the years, as the pit punctures the aquifer and pulls groundwater out of the mountain, the hydrologic balance would shift, and even streamflows on the other side of the mountain would be depleted, according to the state Department of Ecology. Senior water rights held by a Canadian rancher would be infringed on.

The company, prodded by the Department of Ecology, proposes to drill three half-mile-long boreholes through the mountain to carry water from the pit back to the depleted stream basin, Myers Creek. Since the pit water will be polluted with cadmium, copper, lead, mercury and selenium, the water will be directed through a wetlands for purification first.

The company also pledges to create new wetlands and enhance existing ones by buying timber rights but not cutting the trees, creating buffers, planting native vegetation and fencing out livestock. To help cover environmental protection and cleanup needs, the company has agreed to post $22.2 million in cash bonds (part of the $80 million total so far).

Water is another dilemma. The cyanide technology and dust suppression mean 675 acre-feet of water per year will have to be pumped to the top of the mountain. But surrounding stream basins are already overappropriated, and for decades the Department of Ecology has been denying new applications for water rights, even for uses as small as nine gallons per minute.

Water, however, has a way of flowing toward projects that want it badly enough. The company proposes to get around the local water shortage by building a reservoir to store water from the spring freshet for use during the rest of the year. Last year, the Department of Ecology finally granted the mine water rights.

Water will also be a problem after the ore body is exhausted and the Crown Jewel closed. Then the pit will fill with polluted water, which would overflow into nearby Nicholson Creek. Department of Ecology official Bob Barwin says his agency will require another still undetermined technofix before granting the mine's water-quality certification. He estimates that complying with state water-quality standards will cost the company another $10 million.

Then there's the waste rock. A narrow valley that now forms the headwaters of Marias Creek will be dammed and filled with tailings high enough to bury the tall conifers that now stand there. Mined rock that generates acid runoff is one of the major problems created by both active and abandoned mines, and a portion of the 97 million tons dug up by the mine would contain acid-generating material. But the company says acid drainage will be prevented by surrounding the material with waste rock to neutralize the acidic runoff.

Crown Jewel's 100 acres of tailings will be contained by an earthen dam and a triple-lined system made up of a layer of clay, two plastic liners, and leak detectors. "Some in the industry are probably a little bit concerned that we've set an extremely high new standard (with the liners)," says Hinze.

The company also says the mine's enclosed vat processing system, where the crushed ore will be mixed with cyanide to remove the gold, is an improvement over the exposed heap leaches (cyanide sprayed over heaps of the crushed ore) that are common in other states.

Whenever concerns have arisen, says Hinze, the company has answered them, making a good project even better. The result is a mine that not only won't pollute but sets new standards of environmental correctness for the mining industry, he says. The Crown Jewel is a "very good situation all around, from an environmental standpoint and from a socioeconomic standpoint." The mine won't "have the type of impacts that are ... significant, adverse or unmitigable."

Tom Fitzsimmons, director of the Department of Ecology, agrees that the Crown Jewel has had "the strictest review that any mine has ever received in Washington ... We're not going to see any negative impacts from this mine."

A community within the community

To many who live here, the Crown Jewel's lure is irresistible. While the economy west of the Cascade Range is booming, led by corporations like Microsoft and Boeing, the agriculture-dependent eastside is at best sluggish.

Okanogan County's three basic industries - farming, ranching and timber - are hurting. Although the county is the nation's third-largest apple producer, global competition has hurt profits. Mills struggle as the timber cut on the Okanogan National Forest has fallen by more than 50 percent in recent years. The number of cattlemen in the county has shrunk by two-thirds, says county commissioner Spence Higby, and competition with Canadian ranchers is squeezing those that remain.

"We're in tough shape economically," Higby says.

Some eastern Washington counties nearer the Interstate 90 corridor draw over-the-mountain commuters and industrial development, but Okanogan's prospects are bleak.

The area's remoteness discourages urban commuters and large-scale manufacturing. A few places in the county, like the Methow Valley to the southwest (HCN, 11/28/94), have attracted wealthy Seattleites who build second homes, but the north county's geographic separation limits even that option. As a result, some residents express desperation.

"We're dying," says Susan Dusenberry, a cook at the Round-Up Cafe in Tonasket, on the outskirts of the Highlands. "We need something." Not surprisingly, Okanogan's three county commissioners are solidly behind the gold mine. They've passed several resolutions endorsing the mine and have lobbied the state legislature and state and federal agencies on its behalf.

The county's unemployment rate hovers in the low teens and is threatening to rise. The mine would create 144 jobs - 80 percent of them local hires, the company promises. "Those are good, livable-wage, family-supporting jobs," says Higby. Mining will spin off other benefits, as those new wages ricochet around the economy and tax revenues boost local government and school district coffers.

The lure of the jobs is reinforced by a cultural faith in mining. It is seen as another source of land-based wealth, like farming and ranching, and that appeals to a community populated by descendants of original homesteaders.

Another community

But there are people here, too, with an ancient heritage, as well as newer arrivals who believe their future is entwined with the health of the mountain, its wildlife and waters. The north county and the Highlands in particular attract people like Woody Rehanek, who drifted here thinking he might become a cowboy, and instead worked in the sawmills, homesteaded on Buckhorn Mountain, and now, graying slightly at age 51, works as a speech therapy teacher for the Oroville School District.

"It's hardscrabble hill here," says Rehanek, referring to the landscape, the harsh winters, the isolation and poor economy. But he sees the mine differently, as do others in the "alternative community" composed of back-to-the-land types, hippies, professionals, organic farmers and just plain iconoclasts. This community within a community supports a natural foods co-op in Tonasket, the biannual Barter Faires that draw thousands, and musical and cultural performances at their community center.

Rehanek and those like him chose the isolated hill country for a quiet, simple lifestyle. The mine is an intruder, with its cyanide, blasting caps, open pits and earthmovers.

Rehanek says that Buckhorn Mountain influences the circulation of water in five drainages, making the mountain comparable to the heart's central role in the human circulatory system. The open pit amounts to "failing to close a patient's chest following open-heart surgery," he says.

And so, a few months after the mine proposal became public in 1992, Rehanek and a handful of others formed the Okanogan Highlands Alliance. Members began by educating themselves about modern gold mining. They attended meetings, asked questions, raised concerns and early on concluded the mine was inherently harmful and must be stopped.

"Come on, man," says David Kliegman, director of the Highlands Alliance. "They want to blast the top of the mountain apart, mix it with cyanide, and dump the remains in a creek." There's no way to do that safely, he says.

Kliegman's long blond hair and droopy mustache hint at his past in Oregon's laid-back organic farming communities, but he is pure intensity when it comes to fund raising, marshaling attorneys and scientists, and networking with state and national environmental groups - whatever it takes to stop the Crown Jewel Mine.

The Highlands Alliance's $150,000 annual budget comes from foundations, direct mail appeals, concerts and T-shirt sales. Puget Sound foundations like Bullitt and Brainerd have provided funding. Despite the westside support, the fight is locally based, led by the Alliance and the nearby Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation (see sidebar).

The Alliance has engaged law firms specializing in land-use and mining issues, as well as traditional environmental law firms like Earthjustice, formerly the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, and the Center for Environmental Law and Policy, Washington's only public-interest water law firm.

In addition to lawyers, the Alliance hired a geochemist with 25 years' experience in the mining industry; surface water and groundwater geologists; a geophysicist; and University of Nevada mining expert Glenn Miller. Early on, it also engaged Thomas Michael Power, University of Montana Economics Department chairman, to analyze the company's economic projections.

"We have one of the most impressive teams ever assembled to fight a mine," says Kliegman.

The group also recognized that even when it comes to federal land, politics is local, and it bought newspaper and radio ads, and printed and distributed posters, buttons, matchboxes and bumper stickers. The last thing you see driving south on Highway 97 out of Omak, the county's largest town, is a billboard warning about the dangers of cyanide mining, courtesy of the Highlands Alliance and the Colville Indian Environmental Protection Alliance.

"What amazes me about (the Highlands Alliance) is that the Crown Jewel was seen as a done deal," says Will Patric, former Northwest "circuit rider" for the Mineral Policy Center, who helped the group get going. "The agencies were going through the motions. (The Alliance) completely turned that around. If not for (the Alliance), the mine would be in place and it would be a terrible mine."

Despite the expensive design changes the mining company has made, this is not an eco-mine, says Kliegman. "It still looks similar to many other enormous mines that have left toxic waste, polluted streams and groundwater and ravaged landscapes across the West and throughout the world." The mine would "permanently degrade the way water flow from the mountain creates healthy ecosystems downstream," Rehanek says.

"It's inherently unsafe to put toxic waste, even at so-called low concentrations, above a water source, separated by what amounts to nothing more than plastic bags and clay."

Green dystopia

If the outlines of this fight seem depressingly familiar, it's because there are few regulatory pressures. Neither the state nor the federal government pushes mining companies toward radically different approaches to hardrock mining. The Forest Service claims the 1872 Mining Law prevents it from making major changes to the company's design or rejecting the mine outright. The Washington Department of Ecology takes a soft line with developers.

Despite its reputation as an "ecotopia" in the Northwest, Washington state is more green "dystopia" than an ideal, ecologically alert community.

During the 1990s, the state Legislature harassed and intimidated the Department of Ecology with budget cuts and restrictive legislation, leaving many environmental programs hamstrung. Political pressures led to a culture of "customer service rather than compliance and protecting the environment," says a 13-year agency employee who requested anonymity.

A 1995 survey of Ecology Department staff found that "many employees think decisions are being made for political reasons rather than technical," according to union chapter president Paul Pickett. Citations against polluters dropped 22 percent between 1993 and 1996, while fines fell by nearly 70 percent. Between 1991 and 1994, Washington led the nation in legal discharges of cancer-causing toxins to state waters.

Fed up with Ecology's performance, environmental groups petitioned the federal Environmental Protection Agency to take over the state agency's water-quality program. Though the feds passed on that request, they did take the rare step last year of assuming control of Ecology's dairy-farm pollution control program, citing the department's unwillingness to address what's likely the state's largest water-pollution problem.

While Washington isn't a mining-industry stronghold like Nevada or Colorado, the state Legislature has been helpful to the industry. A 1993 proposal to place stringent requirements on hardrock mines like the Crown Jewel was defeated by the industry with help from Democratic legislative leaders, according to the bill's sponsor, Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish.

Industry supporters said the bill, which included a no-degradation clause for water resources and required backfilling open pits, would shut down hardrock mining in the state. Lawmakers replaced that proposal with milder legislation that increased bonding requirements but avoided many of the environmental issues.

State Rep. Dunshee, who digs septic tanks for a living, represents a blue-collar district and is out-front on environmental issues. He says the Department of Ecology still has considerable authority, but the agency is loath to deny permits for large projects like the Crown Jewel.

Individual legislators regularly attempt to influence permit decisions, Dunshee says. "I know legislators call up (Ecology staff) and say, "You do this." Everybody's smart in these things. It doesn't even take a wink, those agency folks have been cut and whacked enough times." Given the political climate, it's not surprising to environmental leaders that Ecology has focused on mitigating the mine's impacts rather than denying permits.

"They've weighed the jobs (produced by the mine) and they've got the county commissioners on them and they couldn't say no," says David Mann, the Highlands Alliance's attorney and president of the Washington Environmental Council, the state's largest and most politically influential environmental group.

The legal front

The Confederated Tribes, the Highlands Alliance, and other environmental groups have taken the Crown Jewel Mine to the courts, as well as the state pollution control board, which functions like a court.

The groups say it's illegal for Ecology to endanger senior water rights on the basis of an untested mitigation plan and illegal to approve the plan without first writing regulations defining standards for such mitigation. The mine's mitigation strategies are "quite the engineering marvel," water lawyer Rachael Paschal says sarcastically. Paschal, executive director of the Center for Environmental Law and Policy, is the lead attorney for the groups appealing Ecology's water-related decisions.

"You didn't see Ecology falling all over itself to find water for those people (who'd been denied water rights in the area)," says Paschal, a former University of Washington professor of water law.

"Using mitigation, as a principle, is rooted deeply in how Washington does business," responds Ecology Director Tom Fitzsimmons. "If an activity is permitted, the issue is how to mitigate that activity. Mining is a permitted activity." Granting the mine's water rights was "a judgment call," he says. "I'm sure we'll be fully tested in court."

"The adequacy of this (mitigation) plan is one of the key issues," says Colville tribal attorney Steve Suagee. "We would call it experimental." With the appeal delving into mountain hydrogeology, groundwater continuity and the speculative engineering details of shifting water through a mountain, "this is the most complicated water-rights case ever heard in this state," says Paschal.

A hearing in May before the pollution board exposed flaws in the company's precipitation model, streamflow depletion predictions and wetlands-mitigation plan. So the company expanded its proposal by adding the third hole through the mountain and filed a revised water-quality permit application. Ecology expects to rule on the new application by the end of August.

The federal EPA has echoed concerns that the mine will alter the mountain's hydrology permanently in ways that are not fully known. In a letter last year, the Environmental Protection Agency said the effect of removing the mountaintop would be "irreversible" and "ecologically not mitigable." The federal agency also condemned the wetlands mitigation plan as "poorly defined."

In other legal actions, the groups have filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the Forest Service-approved environmental impact statement. The Highlands Alliance has also challenged approval of the tailings-pond site and appealed the air-quality permit.

Taken together, the coming administrative and court decisions will render a verdict on whether the industry's standard approach to open pits, on-site waste-rock piles and tailings are acceptable under Washington law.

The safer mine alternative

An environmentally safer alternative exists on paper, though it would involve drastic changes to the current proposal. The impact statement on the Crown Jewel Mine identifies the alternative of an underground shaft mine, with no pit and the waste rock used to fill the shaft, as less damaging and still profitable.

According to Phil Christy, the Okanogan National Forest's mining coordinator, his agency did not select the less damaging design because it would produce 40 percent less gold - and that wasn't profitable enough for the mining company. In addition, the 1872 Mining Law "limits our room in what we can require," he says.

It's a longstanding point of contention between environmental groups and federal agencies. Efforts to reform the 1872 Mining Law have focused on giving the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management more discretion.

But political fortitude is needed more than new laws, says mining-law attorney Roger Flynn of the Western Mining Action Project. Environmental laws trump miners' rights, contends Flynn. He says a growing string of court decisions affirms this authority. Most recently, in 1994 the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Portland, Ore. (the same court hearing the appeal of the Crown Jewel EIS) ruled that the Forest Service could require miners to use pack mules rather than build roads to reach a mine in Oregon's Kalmiopsis Wilderness. The court stated that the Forest Service held this authority even though requiring mules would render the mine economically unfeasible.

Around the West, the Forest Service regularly uses its discretionary authority to enforce environmental laws over mining rights, but only on small operations, says Flynn, and never on big projects like the Crown Jewel. Flynn heads the environmentalists' legal challenge of the Forest Service EIS. The Western Mining Action Project specializes in lawsuits that can create precedents activists can use to hold federal agencies and mine projects to higher environmental standards. Of the half-dozen cases in which the group is forcing the issue, says Flynn, the Crown Jewel lawsuit is the brightest prospect.

Not only does the Forest Service identify an economically feasible, less damaging alternative, but it also acknowledges that the mine won't meet water-quality standards in the pit lake.

"It was odd to see it put that way," says Flynn. "I read the EIS and said, "they're admitting this!" Normally we have to prove that, which is tough. Here we have the agency's own document, written by the company's consultant, saying it's going to violate standards."

What's the true price?

If environmentalists win the federal case, an underground mine will be the only acceptable way to mine the Buckhorn Mountain deposit. Such a decision would cost Okanogan County, says county commissioner Higby. While there would still be economic room for mining, there's no assurance that any company would take the risk. Battle Mountain is already on record saying it can't afford to operate a shaft mine.

Other companies may be deterred by Battle Mountain's travails and the fact that the Highlands Alliance also opposes any mine - including the underground alternative.

Even when it comes to jobs and dollars, the Alliance argues that the mine would do more harm than good. It cites statistics showing that the number of local jobs created would be 1.2 percent of the workforce in Okanogan County and neighboring Ferry County. The $7.4 million of income generated each year would be about 1 percent of the total income in the two counties. On the other side of the ledger, the Alliance contends that the Crown Jewel and the prospect of additional mines threaten to diminish the tourist and fishing economy, which is worth more than $100 million a year to Okanogan County.

Rehanek says the county would be better off accepting its limited economic prospects and focusing on small-scale, sustainable businesses while luring retirees and telecommuters - the New West litany.

Despite the company's difficulties, Crown Jewel project manager Dan Robertson recently told the Oroville Chamber of Commerce, "No matter what you've heard, Battle Mountain Gold is in this project to stay" and he reiterated the company's plans to start construction in 1999.

What about the boom-and-bust nature of mining? If the Crown Jewel Mine goes ahead as planned, it still stops cold in 10 years. County Commissioner Higby says there's no harm in that.

"If the money is used wisely, it can be invested in other (revenue-generating) projects." And there's always the possibility that it will be the first of several such mines, Higby adds hopefully. "This county's dotted with old mine holes."

In his previous career as an environmentalist, Chris Carrel, who reports from Federal Way, Washington, participated in a statewide mining-reform campaign and opposition to the Crown Jewel. Since becoming a journalist, he's interviewed Battle Mountain Gold officials for previous stories. They canceled an interview scheduled in Oroville for this story, however, citing upcoming litigation on the mining permits and his past ties with the opposition group.


* Okanogan Highlands Alliance, P.O. Box 163, Tonasket, WA 98855, 509/485-3361. Web site: http://www.televar.com/Kliegoha

* Buffalo Mazzetti, Okanogan Highlands Bottling Company, P.O. Box 1214, Tonasket, WA 98855, 509/485-3912;

* Battle Mountain Gold, P.O. Box 1243, Oroville, WA 98844, 509/476-3144;

* Phil Christy of the Okanogan National Forest at 509/486-5137.

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