August 14, 1995 in City

Contrasting Facets Of Crown Jewel Company Pushes For Permit To Mine Gold; Environmentalists Fear Permanent Damage To Land

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Tags:mining

When mining investors look at Buckhorn Mountain in remote Okanogan County, they see 40 tons of gold worth a half billion dollars.

When environmentalists look ahead 10 years, they see a deep scar on the mountain, millions of tons of displaced rock, and streams laced with traces of cyanide used to flush out the gold.

Those are the contrasting visions of the Crown Jewel Mine, a $100 million venture three miles northeast of Chesaw that is poised to exploit the state’s largest gold find in decades.

The project is a joint venture of Crown Resources Corp. and Battle Mountain Gold Co.

The mine controversy heats up again this week in public hearings in Ellensburg and Oroville on the project’s draft environmental impact statement.

If the project gets its permits, miners will blast a 90-acre pit 400 feet deep to get at the gold.

Working 24 hours a day for eight years, they will crush 10 million tons of rock dug from the mountain, place it in tanks, and mix in a cyanide solution to extract gold particles too small to see.

They will cap a deep tailings pond after a decade, but the pit will remain - a permanent scar on the face of Buckhorn Mountain.

At the hearings, proponents will stress the 150 jobs averaging $31,000, and the $21.5 million in state and local taxes the mine will generate.

Mining projects “are vital, not only because they provide high paying jobs, but because they are critical to the country’s economic future,” said Brant Hinze, Battle Mountain’s general manager.

Opponents will cite the industry’s sometimes-poor record of environmental stewardship, and mistakes in the draft environmental document prepared by regulators.

“We are surprised by the flaws. It was rushed out, and many of the calculations are wrong,” said David Mann, a Seattle attorney representing the Okanogan Highlands Alliance, an environmental group opposing the mine.

The Washington Department of Ecology and the U.S. Forest Service are involved because the site lies on a 900-acre patchwork of federal, private and state lands.

Environmentalists have criticized the Forest Service for signing a letter of understanding with Battle Mountain to make the mine a “mineral showcase” project.

The stakes are high for Houston-based Battle Mountain, which already has spent nearly $50 million and will collect 51 percent of the profits. If the mine fails to open, the company loses the investment.

Project managers want to start construction next year and open the mine in 1997.

The mine will use a patented system to detoxify the cyanide used to extract the gold, and the company will revegetate the areas where milling took place, Hinze said.

“We are proposing to reduce cyanide levels below any other operation in the state. There are 50 of these (detoxification) installations worldwide, and not one of them has failed,” Hinze said.

But environmentalists fear permanent damage from thousands of tons of highly potent chemicals used to coax tiny flecks of gold from tons of rock.

They note that Battle Mountain is a watershed source to six streams, a scenic highlight in the Okanogan Highlands, and a critical wildlife habitat with acres of wetlands.

They say it’s unacceptable for tons of mine tailings to be placed at the headwaters of area streams, as the environmental impact statement proposes.

“I can’t put my garbage in a stream bed - why should they be allowed to do it?” Mann said.

Environmental groups formed a coalition in 1992 to fight the mine. The Bullitt Foundation, established by former KING broadcasting owner Dorothy Bullitt, contributed $10,000.

They bought $40,000 worth of full-page newspaper ads in April 1993.

“They take the gold. We keep the cyanide,” the ads began. They stressed that 80 percent of the gold will go into jewelry, manufactured abroad by cheap labor.

“There’s really nothing at all in this for the people of Washington,” the ads concluded.

That’s “scare rhetoric,” Hinze said.

Washington’s 1994 mining reform law toughened state mining regulations, providing safeguards for citizens, he said.

The act provides for bonds that the company must pay to insure against environmental damage; citizen observers; increased inspections paid for by the mining industry; siting criteria; and performance standards for tailings systems, Hinze said.

“I’d hope the people who are truly interested in protecting the environment would recognize the mining industry in Washington has stepped up to the plate,” he said.

Mann said the 1994 act was a “compromise” with industry. He said other states - most notably California - have far more protective mining laws.

Recent pollution at several gold mines in the West shows the industry is not problem-free. Among the incidents:

In April 1992, a concentration of cyanide 38 times higher than state safety limits was found in a runoff pond at Battle Mountain’s San Luis, Colo., cyanide leach mine. Colorado fined the company $168,000 - the largest fine in state history.

Battle Mountain’s gold mine in Nevada had problems with leaking cyanide in an old tailings pond that was owned previously by another company. Chlorine added to dilute the cyanide contaminated the aquifer, according to Nevada’s Bureau of Mining Regulation and Reclamation.

Another mining company, Galactic Resources, filed for bankruptcy protection at its Summitville, Colo., mine in 1992 when faced with huge cleanup bills for its cyanide leach mine.

Summitville’s cleanup costs are being passed on to taxpayers. They could top $70 million - more than 10 times what the company put into its reclamation bond.

Because of these problems, the Washington Legislature in 1994 declared a moratorium on cyanide heap leach mining until 1996.

Even after the moratorium expires, Battle Mountain won’t use the cyanide heap leach process in Okanogan County, Hinze said.

“The ore we have is amenable to other processes, not heap leaching,” he said.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Map of area

MEMO: These sidebars appeared with the story: Hearings schedule Hearings for Crown Jewel Mine: Tuesday, 5:30-9:30 p.m., Samuelson Student Union Building, Central Washington University, Ellensburg. Thursday, 6:30-9:30 p.m., Oroville High School Commons, Oroville, Wash. To preregister to speak, call Patricia Betts at the Washington Department of Ecology, (360) 407-6925, or Phil Christy at the U.S. Forest Service, (509) 486-5137. Speakers also can register at the door. Public comment period closes Aug. 29. Written comments can be sent to: Crown Jewel Mine Draft EIS, U.S. Forest Service, 1 W. Winesap, Tonasket, Wash. 98855.

At stake The proposed Crown Jewel Mine is expected to have significant economic and environmental impacts. Here are some: Gold extracted: 40 tons over eight years, worth approximately $500 million. Fine dust generated: 1,303 tons. Acres disturbed: 925. Acres needing reclamation: 604. Jobs: 150. Payroll: $53 million. Expected tax revenues: $21.5 million. Decrease in stream flows from water withdrawal for mine: 1.1 percent to 8.6 percent. Sodium cyanide use: 13,600 tons. Lead nitrate: 1,360 tons. Ammonium nitrate: 25,600 tons. Hydrochloric acid: 1,760 tons. Wetlands lost: 3.39 acres. Sensitive plants lost: 2,533. Source: Draft environmental impact statement prepared by U.S. Forest Service and Washington Department of Ecology, 1995.

These sidebars appeared with the story: Hearings schedule Hearings for Crown Jewel Mine: Tuesday, 5:30-9:30 p.m., Samuelson Student Union Building, Central Washington University, Ellensburg. Thursday, 6:30-9:30 p.m., Oroville High School Commons, Oroville, Wash. To preregister to speak, call Patricia Betts at the Washington Department of Ecology, (360) 407-6925, or Phil Christy at the U.S. Forest Service, (509) 486-5137. Speakers also can register at the door. Public comment period closes Aug. 29. Written comments can be sent to: Crown Jewel Mine Draft EIS, U.S. Forest Service, 1 W. Winesap, Tonasket, Wash. 98855.

At stake The proposed Crown Jewel Mine is expected to have significant economic and environmental impacts. Here are some: Gold extracted: 40 tons over eight years, worth approximately $500 million. Fine dust generated: 1,303 tons. Acres disturbed: 925. Acres needing reclamation: 604. Jobs: 150. Payroll: $53 million. Expected tax revenues: $21.5 million. Decrease in stream flows from water withdrawal for mine: 1.1 percent to 8.6 percent. Sodium cyanide use: 13,600 tons. Lead nitrate: 1,360 tons. Ammonium nitrate: 25,600 tons. Hydrochloric acid: 1,760 tons. Wetlands lost: 3.39 acres. Sensitive plants lost: 2,533. Source: Draft environmental impact statement prepared by U.S. Forest Service and Washington Department of Ecology, 1995.

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