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Report Analyzes Problems at the Buckhorn Mine: OHA Recommends Steps to Protect Water Resources

On November 5, 2010, Okanogan Highlands Alliance (OHA) submitted a report titled, “Analysis of Water Quality Impacts at the Buckhorn Mountain Mine and Recommendations for Improvements,” prepared by Dr. Ann Maest of Stratus Consulting, to the Department of Ecology and other regulatory agencies. The report was prepared to assist with efforts by Kinross to understand and remediate the downstream increases in contaminants coming from the mine. Ecology’s hydrogeologist responsible for water quality at the mine retired in June 2010, leaving a significant void in the agency’s ability to provide oversight and enforcement.

The report is a response to contaminant increases in Gold Bowl Creek (located directly below the mine) that required the mine to improve its management measures. OHA found that contaminant increases around the mine are more extensive than previously reported. The OHA report provides an overview of: important events at the mine; violations and orders submitted by Ecology; information on water quality standards and exceedences that have occurred but were not noted by Kinross or Ecology; and adverse environmental effects that have occurred and their current status. The report proposes recommendations for actions that could be taken by Kinross to increase environmental protection.

“OHA hopes this report will help Ecology’s new hydrogeologist get up to speed on the water quality problems at the Buckhorn Mine,” states David Kliegman, Director of OHA, “and that modifications will be made to the management plans so that contaminants from the mine will be intercepted and treated before they enter ground and surface water.”The use of reverse osmosis has improved the quality of treated water discharged to the environment and lowered some contaminants downstream from the discharge points, but others related to blasting have been decreasing more slowly. Water quality in the current underground mine is substantially worse than predicted before mining began, and the quality is expected to worsen considerably as mining progresses deeper underground.

The mine is supposed to be a zero discharge facility, meaning that no pollutants are to escape the mine into the environment. Treated water must meet the standards in the discharge permit. All other ground and surface water must meet state water quality limits. However, contaminants are showing up in ground and surface water monitoring stations below the mine, which means that the dewatering system is not isolating the mine from the environment. In April 2009, Crown was fined $40,000 for failure to maintain a “capture zone” under the mine. There is no indication that a reliable capture zone has been established.

OHA is a local non-profit conservation organization that works to protect the quality of water in the Okanogan Highlands. In April 2008, after appealing the underground mine, OHA entered into a settlement with Kinross that included funding for OHA to conduct independent monitoring. OHA has remained vigilant of environmental conditions at the mine through turnover of important personnel at Kinross and Ecology.