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.

High Country News Classifieds
    Central Colorado Conservancy seeks a land management planner to facilitate the creation of a management plan for the Arkansas River Community (ARC) Preserve on a...
    Do you want to help shape the future of groundwater in the Grand Canyon region? The Grand Canyon Trust is hiring its first water advocacy...
    California Coalition for Rural Housing (CCRH) seeks a strategic and visionary Executive Director: View all job details here-
    The new novel by Ray Ring, retired HCN senior editor, tackles racism in the wild, a story told by a rural White horsewoman and a...
    Title: Digital Engagement Specialist Location: Salt Lake City Reports to: Communications Director Status, Salary & Benefits: Full-time, Non-Exempt. Salary & Benefits information below. Submission Deadline:...
    Title: Conservation Field Organizer Reports to: Advocacy and Stewardship Director Location: Southwest Colorado Compensation: $45,000 - $50,000 DOE FLSA: Non-Exempt, salaried, termed 24-month Wyss Fellow...
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
    Apply by Oct 18. Seeking collaborative, hands-on ED to advance our work building community through fresh produce.
    High Country News is hiring an Indigenous Affairs Editor to help guide the magazine's journalism and produce stories that are important to Indigenous communities and...
    Staff Attorney The role of the Staff Attorney is to bring litigation on behalf of Western Watersheds Project, and at times our allies, in the...
    Northern Michigan University seeks an outstanding leader to serve as its next Assistant Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion. With new NMU President Dr. Brock...
    The Clark Fork Coalition seeks an exceptional leader to serve as its Executive Director. This position provides strategic vision and operational management while leading a...
    Help uphold a groundbreaking legal agreement between a powerful mining corporation and the local communities impacted by the platinum and palladium mine in their backyard....
    The Feather River Land Trust (FRLT) is seeking a strategic and dynamic leader to advance our mission to "conserve the lands and waters of the...
    COLORADO DIRECTOR Western Watersheds Project seeks a Colorado Director to continue and expand WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Colorado,...
    Whitman College seeks applicants for a tenure-track position in Indigenous Histories of the North American West, beginning August 2024, at the rank of Assistant Professor....
    Dave and Me, by international racontuer and children's books author Rusty Austin, is a funny, profane and intense collection of short stories, essays, and poems...
    Rural Community Assistance Corporation is looking to hire a CFO. For more more information visit:
    The Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Foundation (ABWF) seeks a new Executive Director. Founded in 2008, the ABWF is a respected nonprofit whose mission is to support...
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the northern Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.