Mining Company, Groups Reach Compromise

Conservation groups and mining interests reached an accord, ending an 18-year effort to stop the development of a large gold mine on Buckhorn Mountain in north central Washington State. By negotiating the agreement signed by both mining opponents and the company that will build the mine, Okanogan Highlands Alliance was able to achieve proactive environmental protections beyond those required by federal and state agencies.

Buckhorn Mountain was part of the National Forest System until 2004 when the federal government sold the mining claims containing a billion dollars worth of gold for $740.

"The current mining law abdicates the government's responsibility to protect public resources," said David Kliegman, alliance executive director. "Under the 1872 Mining Law, the government is forced to work for the mining industry, not the public. Hopefully the Senate will do something about mining reform this year."

After privatization via patenting, in September 2006, the Washington Department of Ecology approved a permit for Crown Resources/Kinross to construct the proposed mine which the alliance appealed. In the fall of 2007, the department issued water rights and water quality certification, which were appealed by the alliance, Washington Environmental Council, and the Center for Environmental Law & Policy. These and other permit appeals were consolidated and the parties were preparing for a trial scheduled to begin on May 12. With the signing of the agreement, the groups withdraw the appeals in exchange for verifiable, independent monitoring and increased mitigation.

"The groups realized we could win more by settling," said Kliegman, who has led the fight against the mine for nearly two decades. "Instead of a very expensive legal battle, OHA and Crown will put our resources into positive improvements for our community and the environment and independent oversight of the mine impacts."

Despite significant changes to the rejected proposed open-pit mine from the 1990s, grave concerns remain about the current underground mine proposal. The settlement allows the parties to track these concerns and minimize the impacts of the mine.

Key parts of the settlement with Crown focus on improved monitoring and mitigation. High-points include maintenance of the natural water levels for headwater creeks on Buckhorn Mountain; protection for residents worried about their wells; additional wetland and stream improvement projects in the Okanogan Highlands; and third-party monitoring with independent verification and annual audits of monitoring results.

"OHA believes this settlement is a victory and will be looked at as a win-win for the local community." added Kliegman. "We aren't going anywhere. We will continue to keep a close eye on this mine's operations for a very long time."

With the settlement, the mine will provide jobs to the area and the local community can have a reasonable level of confidence that the mine will not be detrimental to the environment.