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Water Quality not improving at the Buckhorn Mine

Dr. Ann Maest presents at annual coordination meeting
OHA’s technical expert, Dr. Ann Maest, provides an analysis of the water quality monitoring data.

In some key locations, sulfate concentrations not only exceed the permit limits, but also exceed the less stringent state water quality standards.
 Sulfate enters the surface and groundwater at the Buckhorn Mine when rock containing sulfide minerals was blasted to allow access to the gold ore and was otherwise disturbed in the construction of the facility. Blasting increased the surface area of rock bearing sulfide minerals thereby exposing more material to the weathering effects of the environment. The repeated exposure to air and water can create a chemical reaction called acid mine drainage. Sulfur within the rock reacts to create sulfuric acid that then mobilizes heavy metals that can be released into ground and surface water. A waste discharge permit at Buckhorn limits the concentration of sulfate that can be discharged into groundwater outside of the capture zone to 72 milligrams per liter (mg/L). The mining company has reported sulfate concentrations exceeding the permit requirements in multiple monitoring locations. In some key locations, sulfate concentrations not only exceed the permit limits, but also exceed the less stringent state water quality standards.  Sulfate levels are on the rise at some monitoring locations, Dr. Maest recommended that additional dewatering wells be installed at the mine site to intercept the contaminated water and prevent it from leaving the site.

Nitrate contamination at the site is generally believed to originate from blasting residue. Nitrate levels in some surface and groundwater monitoring locations continue to be above permitted levels and have increased over time.  Dr. Maest recommended that an investigation as to the source and pathways of contaminants be conducted so that remedial efforts can be applied to the site effectively.

In September 2006, the Department of Ecology issued the Notice of Construction allowing the Buckhorn Mine to be built. In April 2009, acknowledging the deterioration of water quality outside the mine area, Ecology issued a $40,000 penalty for permit violations, which was paid without question. Various actions were undertaken to address the problems, but water quality degradation increased. In July 2012, Ecology issued a $395,000 penalty for failure to contain mine contaminants, but this penalty was appealed and settled in June 2013. In the settlement, Ecology agreed not to undertake enforcement action for known violations that had occurred before the settlement agreement.

 2007 Construction began at the Buckhorn Mine
 November 2007 Initial National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit authorized
 Early 2008 Underground gold mining began
 After NPDES in force Violations:* Ecology issued Crown six notices of violation, two civil penalties, six administrative orders, and one order amendment
 July 2012 Ecology issued Crown a $395,000 civil penalty for allegedly causing a substantial landslide, failing to maintain the capture zone, and discharging water through an electrical control box. Crown appealed the civil penalty.
 July 2013 The appeal was resolved through entry of a Settlement Agreement, which the parties filed with the PCHB, thereby resolving all issues and claims by the parties in Crown’s appeal of the penalty.
 July 2016 Due to the extensive violations of the Buckhorn gold mine’s Clean Water Act permit, the Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology) issued an Administrative Order (AO) to Kinross Gold Corporation/Crown Resources Corporation (Crown/Kinross) on July 19, 2016. The AO requires an action plan to capture and treat contaminants emanating from the Buckhorn Mine. In addition, Crown/Kinross is required to document the effectiveness of the various mitigation efforts it has undertaken since July 2013.

*Permit violations included exceedances of permit limits for the mine water treatment plant (MWTP) effluent, failure to maintain the groundwater capture zone, failure to complete required sampling, and creating slope instability resulting in landslides. The capture zone is the farthest extent from the mine that mine-related contaminants in groundwater and surface water are allowed. (Washington Department of Ecology, 2015).

The mine facilities being built on construction fill is likely adding to the spread of mine-related contamination in downstream wells and surface water.
The mine facilities being built on construction fill is likely adding to the spread of mine-related contamination in downstream wells and surface water.
  Environmental protection actions agreed to under the 2013 settlement, and those implemented outside of the settlement, have not been effective at reducing the spread of contaminants emanating from the mine. Now, with the clarifications and improvements to the mine’s water quality permit, the violations have substantially increased. Ecology acknowledges that violations are adding up on a daily basis and that the liability for these violations since June 2013 could be in the millions of dollars, yet no additional penalty has been given.

Upper Portal at Buckhorn   When the mine was permitted, Crown/Kinross committed to containing its pollution. As each day, month, and year passes, water quality violations continue to accrue, with contaminants extending beyond the capture zone. Crown/Kinross should uphold their commitments to the community, to the environment, and to the agencies.
  Upper Portal at the Buckhorn Mine

The mining company, instead of working with Ecology to address its pollution problems, has gone on the offensive. Filing a lawsuit in a Ferry County court, the company claims that Ecology has breached the penalty settlement agreement. Bringing claims that were dismissed from an earlier legal action, this lawsuit is a distraction from the important water pollution issues that need to be addressed. 

OHA has continuously argued for regulatory enforcement. Unless Ecology takes enforcement action, it is unlikely that Kinross will take the actions necessary to bring the Buckhorn Mine into compliance. It is important for Ecology to know that the public is watching, and we expect our laws to be executed. We also expect the mine to be accountable for their impacts.