Regulators began environmental review for exploration proposed by Echo Bay Exploration (EBE, a fully owned subsidiary of Kinross Gold) to expand mining, while the Buckhorn Mine continued to contaminate the water.
The Buckhorn Exploration proposal underwent initial development of its Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). However, before agency review was complete and before a public comment period for the DEIS opened, EBE announced their withdrawal of the Buckhorn Mountain Exploration Project, on May 28, 2014.
The exploration was proposed on lands surrounding the Kinross operating Buckhorn Mountain mine, and the federal land was being claimed by virtue of the General Mining Law of 1872. The USDA Forest Service, in implementing its policy of encouraging mineral development on federal land, sent out work plans with maps in February and August 2012, which depict the specifics of where Kinross Corporation, “Echo Bay Minerals,” proposed to open old roads and build new ones to drill exploration holes.
The exploration proposal was not adequate to protect the environmental integrity of the area. For more information, please see the Fall 2010 newsletter, pages 2 and 8.
The last work plan expanded on the extensive road building and exploration drilling from the previously proposed two main clusters, adjacent to the Jackson/Cedar Creek Roadless Area, and in close proximity to the highlands town of Chesaw.
The August 2012 Buckhorn Mountain Exploration Project EIS Newsletter describes, and depicts on the map below, road corridors that are outside the area where baseline was being collected. Echo Bay Exploration, Inc, intended to explore anywhere within those corridors, and if minerals of interest were identified, the company would then conduct further environmental review for those areas.
The Forest Service had accepted the mining company’s limited approach of only collecting baseline data on 6,000 of the 9,200-acre proposed exploration project area. During the scoping period, the mining company proposed construction of up to 675 new drill sites, with drilling up to 965 exploration holes, constructing up to 72 miles of new drill roads, and utilizing up to 20 drill rigs simultaneously, 24/7.
In places where significant mineral deposits are found, the drilling density could have increased up to several hundred boreholes that could be drilled on 50-foot centers over an area of up to 160 acres.
Implications of exploring along these corridors would include not only the drill site disturbances and related sludge pits, but also the serious impacts associated with reopening of old roads that had begun to heal. Building and reopening roads increases sedimentation in waterways and fragments habitat, creating impacts that go far beyond the footprint of the road. Reopening of old roads reverses decades’ worth of natural restoration and significantly contributes to the environmental impact of the exploration.
The extensive road building and development of the proposed drill sites above Chesaw would obliterate the night sky and produce unacceptable noise for months. The road building and the proposed drill sites near the roadless area would severely damage this special and unique part of the highlands, where one of very few remnant Western Red Cedar ecosystems in Okanogan County remains. Exploration could also impact the wildlife corridor function of the nearby roadless area.
The specific proposals outlined in the work plans go beyond what was presented to the public in the scoping period. The public was told that areas of specific resource conflict would be avoided, but the cedar ecosystem and the highlands town of Chesaw are specific areas where conflict was identified. Also, methods outlined in the last work plan involved exploration in areas where no baseline had been gathered; taking baseline only along the road corridors makes it difficult to know what resources would be impacted.
DNR assumed lead agency status for review of this combined exploration project.
Kinross proposed a "block" permitting approach to provide Echo Bay with maximum flexibility to decide where to place drill road. Some of exploration is proposed a mile or so east, south and west of the mine. The company claimed that there has already been sufficient environmental baseline information in this area.
Other areas included the hillside south of Chesaw; in the headwaters of Maris Creek; and a large block along the Gold Creek/Nicholson Creek Road bordering the Cedar/Jackson Creek Roadless Area. Here they recognized that they did not have adequate baseline information to know what the impacts would be, and that more review would be needed to determine if it would cause significant impacts and before drilling could take place. Baseline studies were initiated.
Where Would All the Water Come From?
For the Buckhorn Exploration Project proposed from 2010-2014, EBE would have needed a continuous supply of 83.3 gallons per minute (gpm) for exploration drilling, which would take place over a 5-year period followed by 3 years of reclamation. While homeowners install water savers in their showers and irrigate carefully, multinational mining companies request hundreds of acre-feet of water so they can look for gold. These figures do not include the millions of additional gallons of water that would be required if gold were found and mining commenced. URS, a consultant assisting with the exploration review, has recommended four potential sources of water for the exploration: