Proposed gold mine stirs up a rural Washington county

  • Roger and Sally Jackson in their cheese-aging room

    Aldon Fitch and Linda Moore

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.

Jackson 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.

The 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 conservative county.

"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.

In 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 well.

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 reservation.

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 surface.

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 pit.

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 or rock.

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.

Yet from 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 Area.

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 out.

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 spills.

"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.

The 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.

For more 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.

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